Show Hide image

Cutting Edge: Living With Brucie

Rachel Cooke detects an edge of malice in the veteran entertainer.

Cutting Edge: Living With Brucie
Channel 4

When I learned that Channel 4 was devoting its Cutting Edge documentary slot to a fly-on-the-wall film about Bruce Forsyth (14 July, 9pm), my first reaction was po-faced. Aren't there more important subjects deserving of its attention? But then I started watching it and had to concede that, although Living With Brucie wasn't about to blow apart the judicial system or anything, it was nevertheless gripping and weird and somehow true.

Remember early Louis Theroux? This was similar, though its director, David Nath, resisted the temptation to appear on screen himself. His film was extremely revealing, and therefore often cruel; I'd be willing to bet good money that Forsyth hates it and feels conned. Who knows? It might even encourage the old control freak to call time on his show business career before someone else - someone who watched this documentary, completely aghast - does the job for him. Time to order the box sets of Frost, Wilnelia!

Who's Wilnelia? I suppose it's a fair question: my guess is that New Statesman readers do not often flick through Hello!. Wilnelia is Forsyth's wife of 26 years. A former Miss World, she is 32 years his junior, and has the patience of a saint, even when trapped in a golf buggy that is being driven too fast by her husband, who is 82 and as fractious as a toddler. Living With Brucie appears to have been her idea and because she is patently not a mean person, I assume that she thought its director would cut out all the tricky and embarrassing stuff - just like the editor of Hello!.

Unfortunately for her, he did not. The film begins on a golf course at the Forsyth mansion in Puerto Rico, the island where Wilnelia was born. Scene one. Bruce is by the pool, where he is doing his "Fountain of Youth" exercises. "No close-ups!" he shouts, hurling himself on to his floor mat. There follow various push-ups and bottom lifts, and finally 25 terrifyingly brisk twirls. Round and round he goes. It's hard not to think of the out-of-control potter's wheels that were such a mainstay of The Generation Game. Only this one doesn't fling clay at innocent bystanders. And this one isn't remotely funny.

Bruce did not understand the notion of an unscripted film. So, he just talked to the camera. It was as if he was on a QVC show specialising in kit for the elderly. On his list of recommendations: support socks (knee-length, black), bottled water (dehydration is the enemy), dried fruit (for energy) and the courtroom novels of Steve Martini ("an excellent writer"). He kept trying to "direct" his co-stars Wilnelia and the housekeeper, Cora, unaware that thanks to his radio mike we would be able to hear his whispered instructions.

Sometimes he lost his temper. When a security guard asked to see his buggy permit, he behaved like any other horrible Englishman on holiday, the pidgin Spanish - "Comprende? Momentito!" - pouring out of him like a bad script. On other occasions, he seemed to fall into a zombie-like state, the effort of maintaining the work ethic that has served him so well for 68 years pushing him to the edge of exhaustion. A day spent rehearsing the presenter's role on Have I Got News For You rendered him a husk, a Bruce-like effigy in need of Complan - the beady eye of the camera fell on it shortly before Wilnelia politely closed his dressing-room door - and a long nap.

Reclining on a cheap BBC sofa in a fluffy robe and those long black socks, Forsyth looked both creepy and poignant. Nath's film did not remind the viewer of its subject's long and noble history as an entertainer, of his humble beginnings as a variety show hoofer, which was unfair. But it caught the edge of malice that I felt coming off him even as a child, sitting in front of the telly in my pyjamas on a Saturday night; and it captured, for better or worse, that moment when smiling professionalism turns into something calcified and desperate. There was a whiff of John Osborne's Archie Rice about Forsyth. That he appeared not at the end of a pier, but amid the luxuriant greenery of various golf courses, didn't make his jabbering showbiz defiance any less sad.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Godless Britain