Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night

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[more Brucie: Slinger’s Day]

In the late seventies, Bruce Forsyth was riding high at the BBC with The Generation Game, when he suddenly announced he was quitting television for a return to the stage, in a jukebox musical of Anthony Newley tunes, The Traveling Music Show. Following bad reviews, it closed after four months, and Bruce was quickly poached back to the screen by LWT, with a £15,000 per-episode fee to host his own Saturday night variety show, Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night. At £87,000 in today’s money, multiplied by 12 episodes, I imagine Brucie toasted so much celebratory champagne, his agent must’ve been seeing double — chin, chin! The budget for each show was an incredible £250,000, which is the equivalent of almost £1.5m in 2020. Incidentally, I have to keep reminding myself it’s just Big Night, and not Big Night Out. That would be something else entirely — “who’s on the end of the noose, Bruce?!”

So, as a Saturday night show it’ll be, what, the regulation sixty minutes? Afraid not, it’s two hours. Noel’s House Party was only 50 minutes, so Brucie’s Big Night is more than a Double Noel (which is the standardised system for measuring units of televisual time). This is gonna need some real stamina, so I’ve stocked up on energy bars, pushed a catheter into my penis-hole, and updated my will in the event of fatal DVT — enjoy those Emmerdale Farm Funko Pops and DVDs of MILF porn, mum. Although it’s sold as a live television extravaganza, the raw footage of Big Night‘s studio time-clock — during which a producer hiccups — reveals the taping dates as September 25th and 26th, 1978; two weeks before it aired on ITV.

01

The series landed right at the peak of disco, as reflected in its theme tune, which you could definitely do CPR to. What a story that would be — waking in a hospital bed to find out some kindly passer-by brought you back from the banks of the Styx by compressing your chest to the beat of Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night. And I’ve never felt so alive, as we’re right into an opening dance number, with in-house troupe, Thirty Two Feet, hitting the flashing floor for an exuberant disco take on gospel hymn Oh Happy Day! You’re in no doubt this is the late seventies, with more than a hint of Jesus Christ Superstar about it all — “when Jesus washed, hey! — he really washed; you know that he really washed!” I hoped for Brucie roller skating out in holy robes, but he doesn’t appear until the climax, skewered by a spotlight, in a weird arms-up pose, as though holding back the tides, rather than the classic Brucie Thinker. Perhaps he means to make a clear separation from The Generation Game, though after dancing down the the stage, we’re back home with a “nice to see you, to see you…

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In the wake of his switching teams, the friendly war between the Beeb and ITV is played up with digs like “this is not a repeat… which makes it different for a start.” The gimmick here is that the show’s airing on all regions at the same time, thanks to “the ITV Mafia,” unifying and uniting the disparate television listings of the UK underneath a single Brucie banner. To mark the occasion, he’s written a song. “Would you like to hear it?” he asks the audience, who reply with a comically appalled “NO!” The house band kick off into glitzy 70’s television big band, the conductor waving madly as Brucie shimmies, crooning his self-penned lyrics about this hands-across-the-regions feast of light entertainment.

I don’t know where you are, you may be near or far,

so let’s get the network together.

It’s Saturday night, you may be on your own,

not even a telephone,

so let’s get the network together!

It’s eternal, it’s a party…

Remember on ITV, we’re the channel you get for free…

On this, Brucie pats the pocket of his arse like the ASDA adverts, and with one of those terrifically oldschool song-closers — “get the whole of the network together tonight!” — a final bombastic beat has him fold into an immaculate, classic, and timeless Brucie pose. There’s a jokey bit where he runs through alternative titles for the show, including “Saturday Night Fever Forsyth,” with a weird cadence that makes it clear he’s never heard of the movie, before proving himself a real company man by digressing into the topic of Ted Rogers’ 321. “Hasn’t that caught on?” he says, asking the audience “do you like it?

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Rather smarmily, he introduces his hostess — known for partnering with him on the Gen Game and in the marital home — the then-current Mrs Forsyth, Anthea Redfern, who’s told to be less “old hat” and a bit more showbiz, now they’re on “this side of the Thames,” so she parades up and down, showing off her dress, winking and wiggling her bum. With two decades between them, her a model, and him looking older than his years, there’s a strong father/daughter vibe, with banter that’s extremely ‘co-presenters at the Oscars doing jokes before the envelope.’ Needlessly, there are two more female hostesses — or Anthea’s “ladies in waiting” — called Michelle and Di, but christened by Bruce as “Ebb and Flo,” as he bends double in laughter, as part of his continual quips and asides, which are so relentless, it’s bordering on a medical condition, like Bru-CD — “If I don’t make a gag every five seconds, my parents will die in their sleep!”

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Eight minutes in, we get our first game, “a bit of fun” involving amateur joke-tellers from “the pubs, clubs and factories of Great Britain” all doing a gag. You’d assume these would be quick one-liners, but they’re shaggy dog stories, dragged out all the longer by Brucie’s interruptions, perhaps eager to please his new bosses and audience, and unable to let anyone get a word in without cramming in his own funnies. Contestant #2 is from Fife. “I love your bananas,” says Bruce, repeating it back to himself; “…I love your bananas!” The man’s got a dog called Shauna. “Do you ever bathe it?” “Er… sometimes?” he replies, confused, as Bruce turns to the audience with an “altogether now — he has a…” Literally nobody responds, as Brucie completes the joke by himself, “…a Shauna bath!” What?! I think he means sauna, but as the studio silence attests, it’s some reach.

When the bloke finally gets to his joke, rambling in a soft, nervous voice, it’s about oil field fires and Red Adair, which Bruce wrongly ‘corrects’ as “Fred.” While we’re here, people who moan about famous Youtubers would do well to remember there used to be a celebrity oil well fireman. But by the end of this segment, going up in an agonizing pillar of blazing oil is but a glorious dream, as contestant #3’s job as a postman has Brucie straining for every available punchline — “You work for Tommy Steele?! Did you deliver your own children?!” Finally, after the audience dole out scores from the balcony, with a couple of elderly scorers having trouble sliding the numbers into the slot, the winner’s presented with a gold comedy mask and combination record/cassette player.

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The saddest thing about these lone surviving episodes is the tease of coming treats likely never to appear for viewers in the far-flung future. Here, Brucie promises in the next few weeks, Rod Hull and Emu will be going on safari, which is like receiving a letter from a loved one about how they’re so looking forwards to your holiday together, which plops through the letterbox the day after they got flattened by a dustcart. Thankfully, the lads are in the studio for some episode one hijinx, where Rod’s hair is remarkable, hanging over his head like the silk valance around an antique chair. He always sounds like he needs to blow his nose — “decond class dicket to Dottingham” — and puts Emu into a trance. Of course, Emu’s faking, so bites Rod’s arse, hand, face, and eyeball, causing me to imagine a fucked up Emu with teeth, leaving Rod and all the guests and children in bleeding tatters.

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It builds to Emu holding a 500lb weight in his beak, causing Rod to take an insane somersault onto the studio floor, flipping over with his spine hitting right on the edge of a step, in the kind of fall you see in gifs titled “the bump that ended this wrestler’s career!” Like Freddie Starr and Norman Wisdom, he must’ve struggled to get out of bed every morning. Now sweaty and out of breath, he staggers over to Bruce, who’s hiding inside a cage, where Emu grabs a hold, first of Brucie’s infamous chin, and then his penis. But then, with that jarring variety switch, Bruce is suddenly in the middle of a dance-riot — “Yes, it’s disco mania! It started with John Travolta, and now it’s happening here on television!

The floor, laid out in flashing segments like Studio 54, fills with all 42 finalists of the UK Disco Dancing Championship. 42 dancers is a lot, and every inch of the stage is crammed with flares and silver catsuits, open shirts and Cuban heels, doing their own thing to the house band’s thumping generic track; “dance with me in the disco beat!” There’s blokes doing the Travolta point, a woman gyrating her stomach, some fella Russian dancing; one lad’s just waving a hanky about. As the mass of glittered humanity writhe and kick at 120bpm, like a moving Where’s Wally? powered by St. Vitus, the camera cuts get faster and faster, creating a dizzying spectacle of flesh and sweat, and trouser-legs flapping like the Hulk’s foreskin. Clearly, the only point of choreography was everyone ending on one climatic beat, but as it hits, many — now exhausted — jump too early or late. One guy’s stuck bent in a pose when it kicks, and stumbles over. Bruce, meanwhile, is very excited to discover which of them will be the UK’s “John Travolta or John Travoltess.” C’mon, Joan Travolta was right there!

07

So from Disco dancing to… Pong? They call it TeleTennis, but it’s literally just Pong, in what must be one of the first examples of competitive video-gaming on television, pre-dating the “up… left… jump!” phone-ins of Saturday mornings by fifteen years. Incredibly, they’re using voice activated controls, demonstrated by Bruce and Anthea moving the paddles up-screen by shouting each other’s names. Anthea’s cry of “Bruce! Bruce!” as the little block shoots up inspires his joke about it being just like him in the mornings, and the way they both laugh, he’s clearly talking about his erect phallus. (“Nice to see you…”)

Facing off are representatives from a pair of coach trips, with Maudie from Sevenoaks vs. Cyril Bushman — whose very name reduces Brucie to hysterics — of the St. John’s Ambulance. Picking their prizes, Maudie wants a portable television for the works restroom, while Cyril’s playing for a stretcher bed for the ambulance. Christ, he’s playing televised Pong for medical supplies? What are they carrying the bodies out on now, an old wooden pallet? I hope Boris doesn’t get wind of this, offering PPE, but only if nurses can capture the payload on Overwatch. The stretcher sits there on the stage, presumably ready to be sent back to the suppliers if Cyril loses, like the kidney dialysis machine on Knowing Me, Knowing Yule when the world’s biggest Christmas cracker didn’t pull.

07b

This is 1978, and the controls are wildly oversensitive, especially for a pair of sixty-somethings who’d probably be wowed by a pocket calculator, making for extraordinary television. They’re given the respective noises “OOH” and “AAH” to yell at their onscreen paddles, but for the first few rounds, Cyril just watches, or perhaps too embarrassed to shout “AHH!” at a computer screen, while Maudie leans right in with her “OOH”s, like a key witness on the stand at a murder trial. Noobs with the reflexes of a corpse, consequently, every single point consists of the computer’s automatic serve shooting right past the opposing player, with neither intentionally touching the ball once. Cyril ‘wins’ 10-9, meaning heart attack victims will no longer have to be dragged up the steps of an ambulance by the ankles, while Maudie’s coach gets £40 for fish suppers on the way home.

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Bafflingly, Bruce congratulates them with total earnesty, on doing the best of anyone so far, as the crew’s been playing it all afternoon. Oh, and in the introductory banter, he makes a to-camera invitation for Cyril’s 95-year-old mother to “go out in the garden and wait for me” and if he shows up late, “start without me.” We go to the ad break with Brucie’s “don’t go away, there’s more games to play!” with another rather needy rhyming couplet later of “stay by the set, there’s more to come yet!” Perhaps a more appropriate line would’ve been “smash up your telly, cos this next bit’s real smelly!” as the following ten minutes are devoted to an actual fancy dress contest between six ladies in wacky, home-made outfits.

09

Miss Fleet Street’s dress is made of newspapers; Miss Post Office Tower’s got a big cardboard tower on her head (and hopefully isn’t completing the look by having Noel Edmonds inside her); Miss Intercity’s wearing a train driver’s uniform, with a t-shirt that reads I’M FAST, 125mph, and so on. The quality’s like the Easter bonnet days we had in junior school, which I won once with a hat that was decorated like a birthday cake – Christ, I just realised I lived the actual childhood Americans imagine all British kids to have. They line up for Brucie bantz, with themed jokes about their tit size, and gags like finding out Miss Tea and Crumpets’ — “36, 26, and one for the pot!” — name is Jean and shrieking “Hi, Jean! HYGENE!” (Quick poll: better or worse than Barrymore’s “Hi, Jack!”?) Her challenge involves filling a cup with the teapot that’s strapped to her head, but the lid immediately flies off and it goes all over the floor. Weirdly, when asking their names, he always wants the surnames too — “Sheila what?!” — doxxing them on TV, though it’s worth it for the matronly Miss Spaghetti Junction bellowing “ANNE MOLESWORTH!

10

Bruce gets a breather when they just randomly drop a quiz into proceedings, with £1000 Pyramid hosted by Steve Jones, who’s rocking a spectacular look that ticks all the 1970’s boxes — hair which looks like a wig, brown suit, and Gonch Gardner’s tinted glasses. Members of the public are teamed with Liza Goddard and Russell Harty, in the purest definition of filler, especially as Bruce isn’t even hosting it. Ironically, the Pyramid would be Big Night‘s most successful segment, beginning here as an adaptation of an American game show, and eventually spinning off into a series of its own.

At this point, still only halfway through the runtime, they’re utterly out of ideas, with Brucie asking if we remember a skit from an radio show which ended in 1960. No, but carry on. Well, they’re bringing it back tonight, almost 20 years later! The Glums is just a fifteen-minute bit, but I feel like I sat through an entire box set. A picture of stuffy postwar grimness, all horrid wallpaper and waistcoats, its set-up is that blustering walrus Jimmy Edwards plays father to Ian Lavender’s shy incel, who’s accidentally switched hats at the cinema with a woman, who he must now speak to. The jokes are utter pap, like Edwards asking for his own hat with a “give me me bowler over,” to Pike’s “Yes dad. What’s your bowlerover, dad?” and I wept with relief when I found — with this backdoor pilot having inexplicably led to a revival — that the full series wasn’t available on Youtube, so I didn’t have to Shitcom it. Plus, it’s another pre-tape, allowing Brucie to put his feet up while that £87,000 rolls in.

10b

The final segment is taken up with some actual star power. “You’ve never seen a lady quite like this,” boasts Brucie, “you wanna bet? You gotta bet(te)!” Enter Bette Midler, dressed like an Old West cat-house marm, with a high-energy cover of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. Sitting with Bruce for a chat, it’s a clash of sensibilities akin to Nic Cage somersaulting onto Wogan, immediately off to a weird start when Bruce outs himself as “a devoted fan” who’d only heard of her two weeks ago. His first question is of what impressions she’ll carry back with her (of England), but wires get crossed, and she thinks he means impersonations, which he doesn’t correct. So, after they locate a stool, she’s laying on top of it, pretending to swim as “Shelly Winters from The Poseidon Adventure,” which they appear to cut angles from because the front-on shot is far too booby.

Their conversation seems like it’s taking place though interpretors, with Bruce suddenly exclaiming “Well you’re Jewish! You mustn’t eat pork pies,” before Bette impersonates Joan of Arc at the stake, by pretending to blow out flames, which the audience and host are very confused by. Bette, mate, this is 1970’s Britain; ‘impressions’ means Eddie Large starting a car that sounds like Mick Jagger. Soon, Bette’s ‘jokingly’ wiping her brow, feigning the desire to leave, saying how she loves the Royal Family because “they’re so white!” and that she only came to London to meet Mary Whitehouse, promptly falling to the floor like she’s died. It’s from there the rest of the interview is conducted, with both propped up on pillows on their backs. Brucie brags that Parkinson’s never done this, but then “all he talks about is Barnsley and cricket and Gene Kelly.” “Is he a poof?” asks Bette.

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Bette closes with a couple more numbers, after goofily sandbagging Brucie when he goes to help her up, getting a faceful of boob as he heaves her off the floor and making her laugh with a “no hard feelings.” God, what a missed opportunity not to hook up Bette Midler with Emu for what would’ve been an all-time great TV moment. The show closes with Bruce alone in the spotlight wearing a deeply simpering gin, and singing another ode to the long night we spent together.

I hope we helped to make your Saturday a fun and time-just-doesn’t-matter day…

The closing line anticipates “another Saturday with yooouuu,” followed by a gentle, and oddly American-accented “Goodnight everybody.” Credits roll over really aggressive disco dancing, including a close-up of women grabbing their own shaking arses. There’s a strange credit for “TeleTennis created by Wolfgang Penk and Ernst Muller,” who aren’t the creators of Pong, but German TV producers who presumably used the format over there first. I guess because I’ve got screencaps of Big Night on here, I made the show? Actually, I don’t want credit. That said, there’s a surprising quality of names considering the material, with Barry Cryer, Colin Bostock-Smith (Not the Nine O-Clock News), Andrew Marshall (2point4 Children) and David Renwick (One Foot in the Grave) credited as writers, though a jokester for Noel, Cannon and Ball, Little and Large, and Russ Abbot‘s also listed, which makes entirely more sense.

12

Bruce Forysth’s Big Night was about as well-received with critics and audiences as it was on here, and by the second episode, failed to crack the ratings top 20. In a pre-cursor to the Monday Night Wars, ironically, Brucie was head-to-head against former vehicle, The Generation Game, and found himself losing to replacement, Larry Grayson, on a weekly basis. The public debacle even saw Bruce dedicate a segment on a later episode to dissecting his own show’s failure — like when Roger Moore didn’t show up on Partridge — and Cannon and Ball were brought in to be his onscreen stooges. However, prior to each week’s airing, their sketches were cut, before the pair were dropped altogether.

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The single series ran for 14 episodes, including a best-of clip show on New Year’s Eve — which should’ve been a two hour loop of “ANNE MOLESWORTH!” — but was eventually cut to 90 minutes and moved to an earlier timeslot. In hindsight, with its off-kilter mix of big celebrities like Sammy Davis Jnr, Dolly Parton, and Elton John, and the sort of bargain basement mini-games dads get roped into running at a school fete, its failure seems inevitable. But Brucie took it on the chin, sticking with ITV for the massively successful Play Your Cards Right, and triumphantly returning to the BBC in 1990 for a revival of The Generation Game.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

~ by Stuart on May 17, 2020.

One Response to “Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night”

  1. […] and a gag about Red Adair, which turns out to be the exact same joke told by the contestant in Brucie’s Big Night, four years earlier. After a music video, we cut back to Tarrant at the desk, where he’s been […]

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