Archive for April, 2011|Monthly archive page

Chin up folks, it’s Brucie!

An energetic musical journey into funk, tap-dancing, piano playing and some very bad impressions with the octogenarian king of British light entertainment.

Bruce Forsyth - The Musical Side of Brucie

Bruce Forsyth – The Musical Side of Brucie

Bruce Forsyth,
The Musical Side of Brucie,
PYE Records NSPL 18405,
1973

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If it feels like Bruce Forsyth has been on television forever, it’s because he has. Well almost. He made his first appearance on the BBC in 1939 on a Jasmine Bligh hosted talent show, sneaking in just before all television was suspended for the duration of the Second World War. The fact that television sets at this time were rare and coverage was sporadic across the country wouldn’t have stopped Brucie performing. I get the feeling that he would put on a full song and dance routine if he caught a glimpse of a CCTV camera out of the corner of his eye.

It’s not been a smooth cruise over those seventy plus years. Like many other performers, Bruce Forsyth has endured a few ups and downs over the years and though he can still expect a prime-time TV slot there have been times when he has been distinctly out of favour. It was during one of those lulls in his career that the publishing house Macmillan decided to bring out Brucie’s autobiography, seeing to it that they paid a large advance to secure the story of a man who was a television legend in his heyday.

The book was first published in 2001 and as befits a man of Bruce Forsyth’s stature, a great many hardback books were printed. Sadly for Macmillan it was extremely bad timing, as Brucie was experiencing one of those dips in his career and was not appearing on the television at the time. His attempts at reviving his career with a nostalgic series that harked back to his golden years,  Tonight at the London Palladium, had been cancelled after one short run and he had not much to do all day but play golf and drink gin. Probably with Jimmy Tarbuck.

So the warehouses full of thick heavy copies of Brucie’s autobiography, lavishly bound and edited and all paid for up-front, sat around gathering dust and costing Macmillan money. The fickle British public resolutely refused to buy the life story of someone whose best days were seemingly behind him and Macmillan in a panic cut their loses, making staff redundant and disposing of millions of copies of Brucie’s autobiography, setting them ablaze in huge wicker effigies of his head. All of which they probably regretted when two years after publication, Bruce stormed back into TV viewers’ living rooms courtesy of a guest presenter spot on Have I Got News For You.

Clearly Bruce Forsyth wasn’t dead, incapable of presenting a TV show or washed up. The British public took a renewed interest in his unique skills (a little bit too late to save Macmillan’s finances) and in 2004 Brucie was rewarded with a presenter role that was ideally suited to his talents, Strictly Come Dancing. He was prime time again, bullying contestants, forgetting his lines and showing off like the boy star he once was way back in the dawn of TV history. He has hardly been off the small screen since and clearly relishes every moment.

This 1973 album is from another one of those many turning points in Bruce Forsyth’s life.  His apogee of TV fame presenting Sunday Night at the London Palladium had passed and after many years attempting to forge a stage career as a one-man British rat pack he was handed a rather slapdash game-show which saw contestants make idiots of themselves every Saturday evening. The show was of course The Generation Game and with his wise guidance, along with bullying of contestants and ogling of glamorous hostesses, Brucie was back in the hearts of the nation where he dearly wanted to be.

The Musical Side of Brucie is pitched as a not too gentle reminder to his new TV audience that Bruce Forsyth was a multi-talented performer, an all-round entertainer and not just a wearer of terrible suits and ill-fitting toupees who presented a cheesy game show and chased his dolly bird co-hosts like many a randy old man before him. No, for Brucie could sing, dance and play piano, and on this album he does all three.

On Misty Bruce plays a competent piano tribute to Erroll Garner, tinkling away in a cheerful part-improvised jazz medley. He also tackles the piano on Theme from Peyton Place – another lounge piano workout that for some inexplicable reason mixes up the themes from TV series Peyton Place and Coronation Street like a minicab driver unsure of the directions to either address. It is authentically lounge though and Brucie plays it in the manner of a true lounge pianist. The sort of gig where everyone is drinking mind-numbing cocktails and nibbling salty nuts and not really caring either way what the pianist plays.

The tap dancing comes on the big album show-stopper, You Made Me So Very Happy, an almost ten minute long sprawling epic of orchestral egotistical madness, that screams ‘look at me, look what I can DO!’ It is an open love letter to the sort of person Brucie always wanted to be in his heart, the huge cabaret acts that would debauch their way through Las Vegas, the likes of Dino, Frankie, Tony and Sammy – none of whom would probably ever deign to present Play Your Cards Right even if ITV sent a car to pick them up.

A cross between grovelling obsequiousness and blunt unsubtle impressions that probably would have earned a physical going over from Frank’s ‘special’ friends if he had ever heard it, the track also includes a tap dance sequence. Only someone like Brucie could be self-assured and over-confident enough to tap dance on a record. Rather like a ventriloquist, it’s not ideal for an album, and does really need to be seen to be appreciated. Otherwise it could be a sound technician banging on a desk with a couple of spoons. It ends with Bruce’s three catchphrases  just in case the listener forgets who he is in this transitional phase of his career.

The track I have chosen to share with you all is again not the obvious choice, namely the execrable self-mockery of Chin Up, an obvious attempt at a novelty hit if ever I saw one. Taken from the 1973 film Charlotte’s Web, it is daft in the extreme and is just the sort of thing which tended to top the charts in the 1970s, but it is still annoying. So, instead I have chosen the track Lucretia Mac Evil. It is a wonderful bit of grandiose up-tempo organ-led funk, bonkers, band-standing and about as mad, dark and jazzy as Bruce Forsyth ever got. Didn’t he do well!

Morecambe and Wise bring you sunshine

Morecambe and Wise - Bring You Sunshine

Morecambe and Wise – Bring You Sunshine

Morecambe and Wise
Bring You Sunshine
Starline SRS 5066
1971

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Today, in the popular imagination, they are inextricably linked with their block-busting 1970s show which broke records and entertained (nearly almost) an entire nation, but Morecambe and Wise had to work long and hard before they became successful and ubiquitous household names. From their first meeting in a touring troupe way back in 1940, the duo served their apprenticeship in a succession of venues all around the UK, touring, struggling and grafting, all the time striving to perfect their act and develop their unique sense of timing and delivery.

Ernie Wise though was an ambitious man, with an eye always firmly set on achieving enduring greatness and he had long coveted a television career. The nascent medium during their early years had appealed to his style of intimate joke telling, a style too subtle to be truly effective on variety stages.  As long ago as 1948 he had been writing increasingly insistent letters to the BBC begging for a chance to make a TV show.

After a disastrous, critically-panned television debut back in 1954 with the BBC series Running Wild, a sorry chapter that saw them pleading for the show to be taken off air, the duo had been brave enough to return to television a second time and try to establish themselves all over again. Over the years they made numerous supporting appearances on the likes of The Winifred Atwell Show and the popular variety-fest that was Sunday Night at the London Palladium, diligently working away to establishing their reputation anew.

Finally in 1961, the hard work of Morecambe and Wise was rewarded by omnipotent showbiz mogul Bernard Delfont, who granted them their own ATV series, The Morecambe and Wise Show. It was a brave decision, but I think it is fair to say that Delfont’s impetuous showbiz gamble was vindicated many, many times over. For the next two decades Morecambe and Wise dominated television like few acts before or since, achieving huge viewing figures never likely to be surpassed, and forging the template for a comedy double act, a template that has been copied many times but never bettered.

The material on the album Bring You Sunshine is made up of songs and sketches penned by Morecambe and Wise’s regular scriptwriters Dick Hills and Sid Green. Over six series of The Morecambe and Wise Show, Hills and Green did much to establish the personas and characters of Morecambe and Wise that would last the rest of their career. Ernie Wise, a sensible sort with his ‘short fat hairy legs’ was the butt of many jokes  and Eric Morecambe was a wisecracking interfering jester full of witty retorts and mischief. The efforts of Morecambe and Wise and their writers paid off and they duly became bona fide TV stars. By 1968 though their contract with ATV was due for renewal.  It was during negotiations over this contract that the particular die was cast which was to change British comedy forever. In an office with Bernard Delfont’s brother Lew Grade, thick with the heady fog of his gargantuan cigars, Eric and Ernie picked a fight with one of the most powerful and obstinate figures in showbiz. And won.

Eric and Ernie insisted that more money should be spent on their show and demanded that all their new shows be shown in colour. This outraged the pug-faced cheroot-chomping mogul. It was rare that Lew Grade made mistakes in business but by refusing to accommodate the artistic and professional ambitions of Morecambe and Wise he effectively released them into the clutches of Bill Cotton over at the BBC. Cotton realised immediately the gift he had received and saw to it that Morecambe and Wise would become the huge stars that they always believed they could be. But there was yet more drama in the offing before they could go on to become true legends of the small screen.

In November 1968, just after their first BBC series had aired, Eric Morecambe suffered a major heart attack. On doctor’s order he was forced to ease back on performing and the second BBC series was postponed indefinitely. It was six months before Morecambe and Wise would appear in public together again, and before their TV series could return they were stunned by the defection of their tried and trusted writers, the reliable and dependable Green and Hill who had done so much to make them stars.

Unsettled by the long period of inactivity and fearful for their own future, Dick Hills and Sid Green were lured away from writing solely for Morecambe and Wise by their arch-nemesis Lew Grade who offered the writers a generous contract to sign exclusively for ATV. They left without informing their former employers in a move which could have easily meant the premature end of Morecambe and Wise as a going concern.

Luckily for them though, a former Scouse market trader turned gag-writer named Eddie Braben was free after being ditched by Ken Dodd. By building on the foundations that Green and Hill had established, the surreal wordplay and comic fantasies of Eddie Braben would make Morecambe and Wise undoubtedly the biggest, most popular comedy stars in the UK.

Bring You Sunshine captures the essence of Morecambe and Wise at this pivotal point in their long comedy career.  It was released in 1971 on EMI’s Starline label and gathered together a selection of much-loved comic routines created by Dick Hills and Sid Green for the 1960s TV series.  The sketches are, with a few exceptions, fairly insubstantial. Ton Up Boy seems an obvious inspiration for Dick Emery and Tape Recorder is an enchanting piece of domestic comic whimsy. The remaining sketches such as Indians and Get It Right Corporal are so brief as to almost be one line gags. Harmless filler really but not the meaty chunks that Morecambe and Wise fans were after.The meaty comedy chunks in thick marrowbone stand-up jelly were delivered by the comic songs.

As with the sketches, the songs are also written by Dick Hills and Sid Green, with Walter Ridley taking charge of musical duties. They are without exception an absolute joy, full of charm and gentle subtle wit, much like Morecambe and Wise’s TV act. They do not try to force themselves on the audience, instead relying on clever, well rehearsed repartee. Singing the Blues is a faithfully rendered pastiche of white man blues and there is also an early prototype version of Eric’s brilliant mangling of Grieg’s piano concerto to enjoy, a routine which was later resurrected for none other than the great Andre Preview.

I’d love to put the entire album up for you to listen, but for the sake of brevity and bandwidth, I have selected just one track. Bring Me Sunshine was perhaps the obvious choice, played as the end credits rolled on their TV shows and very much the signature theme of Morecambe and Wise. As ever though, I prefer to spin the more obscure and unappreciated tracks. So to play us out, here is Song of Youth, a wonderful comic song full of domestic violence, hard drinking, promiscuity and lunacy. Somewhere in here lurk the spirits of John Osborne and Les Dawson, with perhaps just a dash of Violet Carson. Bring us sunshine lads:

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