'It's me or your boyfriend!' In his own words, how Bruce Forsyth gave second wife Anthea an ultimatum and why BBC bosses tried to fire her after their love became public



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Anthea Redfern (right) had a boyfriend, whose maroon, chauffeured Rolls-Royce was always waiting to meet her at the doors of the Shepherd's Bush studios. But during breaks in rehearsals, she and Sir Bruce (left) would go across the road to a cafe called Oddies

By Bruce Forsyth For The Daily Mail

PUBLISHED: 22:38 BST, 25 August 2017 | UPDATED: 00:42 BST, 26 August 2017

Stardom takes over your whole life. When the lucky breaks started to flow my way after 16 tough years in showbusiness, I grasped them with both hands... even if, as a married man, I should not have done.

Pretty girls were now giving me an extra long look, and temptation was being thrown my way 24 hours a day. I'd always been a flirt, but when I think of the opportunities I passed up, I don't think I was too awful. Promiscuity was, after all, common in our business.

Now that I was a 'somebody', my shyness was beginning to disperse. Hitting the big time was a boost to my all-round confidence — business and sexual. So I have to admit that I was unfaithful to my wife, Penny, and shoulder my fair share of the blame ... though I know that Penny would be the first to admit her faults too, not forgetting her very fiery Irish temper.

Penny was a dancer when we met, at the Windmill Theatre. I was working there as a comedian, and the owner, Vivian Van Damm, made it clear that if I dallied with any of the girls, I'd be kicked straight out of the door.

Despite his dire threats, I didn't always behave myself. And I have to admit that when I first saw Penny Calvert, I was very attracted to her but it was not love at first sight — because there were so many pretty girls at the Windmill. But I always had a soft spot for her because I knew that her family life was hard — her father wasn't around, and she was the only breadwinner for her mother and four siblings.

It wasn't till she went on a date with a friend of mine that I realised she liked me — apparently, she spent the whole night singing my praises. We started going out and I discovered that Mr Van Damm did tolerate romances backstage, providing he regarded them as 'a good match'.

Penny and I — now 'courting', as it was called then — worked our cotton socks off at the Windmill. But after a while I started to feel it wasn't really showbusiness, just a girlie show, and I was yearning to perform in something more respectable. Together, we took the reckless decision to leave, and become a song-and-dance double act, doing Fred Astaire and Judy Garland numbers.

Bookings were hard to get in Britain, and when we did find work it was often in ballrooms, where the slippery floors were hazardous in tap shoes. Then in 1953 Penny and I were offered a four-month tour of India and Pakistan, travelling from Bombay to Calcutta and then across to Karachi.

But we would have to travel separately ... unless we were married. That seemed a great idea, so we organised an instant wedding — though of course no one believed our reason for being in such a hurry.

Penny got ill in India and, though I was skinny to begin with, I lost a couple of stone, too. But some good came of it all — I developed a solo act, which slowly led to fame when we returned to England.

Bruce with wife Wilnelia dancing together after 35 years of marriage 

1961: British entertainer Bruce Forsyth and his wife Penny Calvert 

Until our first daughter, Debbie, was born in 1955, Penny had travelled round the provincial theatres with me. But once we became parents, and especially after our second daughter, Julie, was born in 1958, it was not always possible for us to be together, and prolonged absences did put a great strain on our marriage.

I realise now that she was very young to be giving up so much for me and the children, and that it would have been wiser if we had allowed each other five years to develop our own careers. But we didn't think like that at the time.

Our third daughter, Laura, was born in 1962. The gynaecologist said to me: 'You're very good at girls, Mr Forsyth' — and I replied: 'So was Henry VIII.' But like the monarch and his wives, things were often not good between me and Penny.

By June 1964, as I embarked on a summer season in Bournemouth, I knew my marriage of nine years was all but over.

And as if I didn't have enough problems, I met Ann Sidney, a 19-year-old hairdresser who had won the town's 'Miss Front Page' beauty contest at a bistro. A friend of mine had arranged to have dinner with her but at the last minute couldn't make it — so I stepped in.

She was an exceptionally beautiful girl and we kept seeing each other, though at 36 I was almost twice her age. I was forever sending her flowers and gifts — and when she went to compete in the Miss United Kingdom contest a couple of weeks later, of course I sent 'good luck' telegrams.

Ann won and was crowned Miss UK. I was there to meet her on her return, giving her a peck on the cheek when she stepped off the plane in London.

Of course, that was the photo that was splashed all over the papers next day.

An eye for the ladies: Bruce met Ann Sidney (pictured), Miss World 1964, after standing in for a friend who had to drop out of a dinner date with her

Sir Bruce met wife Lady Wilnelia, pictured with him, at the 1980 Miss World competition, in which they were both judges. Wilnelia won the competition in 1975 for Puerto Rico

Realising the damage this could do to my career as well as her chances in the Miss World contest, Ann was upset — as was her father. I went to see him, arriving at his house at 1am after a show, to explain that although I was still married, Penny and I were separated. Later, Ann's father told her I was 'a real gentleman'.

Penny also saw the photos, and read the stories that said my image as 'a happily married family entertainer' had been 'irrevocably tarnished'.

We met at a Bournemouth hotel to discuss it over lunch, but by now our relationship really had gone sour, and the conversation didn't get very far. After that, our separation became official. 

Soon after, I returned to London to appear in the West End production of Neil Simon's musical Little Me, and Ann took a flat in the capital with a girlfriend. There were some stunningly beautiful girls in the show, but I was in love, convinced that what Ann and I had was very special. Throughout the show's ten-month run, I never took out another girl. What control!

Just before we opened, the 1964 Miss World pageant was held at London's Lyceum ballroom, and Ann won. I couldn't believe it. This was the last thing I needed.
There had already been so much publicity about our affair, with headlines like, 'How Bruce Laughed The Beauty Queen Into His Bed'. This would make it so much worse — and on top of that, there would be no chance of seeing Ann for at least a week, because the Miss World sponsors would keep her under lock and key.

But I underestimated her. At about 1am, there came a tap on my apartment door, and there she was in her gown. She stayed for a couple of hours and then sneaked back to her hotel, undetected.

There was a lot of sneaking around after that. One night, visiting her flat, I put on a dirty mac, like TV detective Columbo. Another time, I disguised myself with a hat and 'Inspector Clouseau' moustache. We didn't know how great a toll this secrecy was taking, until Christmas 1965 when we flew to South Africa where I was appearing in a variety show.

After this trip, when we had broken up, Ann told the Press that she asked me, in our hotel room, whether I had any intention of marrying her. I honestly don't remember that.
I was having a hard time getting a divorce from Penny, and Ann knew this. Now her year's reign as Miss World was coming to an end, Ann was feeling restless.
It was later reported that, in our hotel room one night, Ann drank too much alcohol and swallowed a lot of sleeping pills in an attempt to take her own life. There was a hurtful and inaccurate suggestion that she'd done this because I had refused to marry her. Ann may have had other reasons for drinking so much and taking the pills — and it might have been a mistake.

Thank God, she wasn't harmed, and she was very ashamed later. But things were not right between us, and there was no going back. Fifteen years later, a series of newspaper articles appeared about our relationship. I told her that they contained so much that was untrue — such as her claim that I'd blown my top when she revealed our affair to the Press — I now had nothing to say to her. We lost touch after that.

It was at a beauty contest that I met my second wife, Anthea Redfern: I was judging a Lovely Legs contest at a London nightclub in 1970, when I was 42. Anthea was the host, wearing a two-piece lavender outfit with an eye-catching miniskirt, and looked stunning.
Sir Bruce and his wife Lady Wilnelia looking glamorous at the Royal Ascot, pictured. The pair were married in 1983 after meeting while judging the 1980 Miss World Competition 

Sir Bruce and his wife Lady Wilnelia looking glamorous at the Royal Ascot, pictured. The pair were married in 1983 after meeting while judging the 1980 Miss World Competition

When we were auditioning girls to be my assistant on The Generation Game the next year, I remembered Anthea. She captivated the producers on her first screen test, though she was only 21 and very nervous.

With her past experience as a model, her walk was better than mine, and I was able to nurse her through early shows when she stumbled over lines.

Anthea's outfits soon became an important part of the show. In the first series there was a strict budget, and her dresses came off the peg. Later, she had gorgeous gowns created for her by the designer Linda Martin, and each week her entrance on stage would bring gasps from the audience.

One night when she was looking particularly lovely, I blurted out, 'Oh Anthea, let the viewers see the back of your dress. Come on, give us a twirl!'

Those unplanned words stuck, and became another of my catchphrases.
Anthea had a boyfriend, whose maroon, chauffeured Rolls-Royce was always waiting to meet her at the doors of the Shepherd's Bush studios.

But during breaks in rehearsals, we would go across the road to a cafe called Oddies, and she began to confide in me how unhappy she was — this man was very critical of her performances, and was unfaithful to boot.

Gradually, in that little cafe, as she poured her heart out and I held her hand, we fell in love.

Anthea always says that the moment she knew she loved me was when I came into her dressing-room and kissed her for the first time. She was sitting there in Carmen rollers, with no make-up — later, she laughed that she had wanted to look more 'glamorous' for our first kiss!

My marriage to Penny, despite two attempted reconciliations, was certainly long over. But for Anthea, there was the agonising choice between me and her old boyfriend, and she wavered.

After she came to my flat one winter evening and we shared a meal, I told her how desperately I wanted us to be together. I gave her an ultimatum — she had to make up her mind.

To give her the space she needed, I took myself off to a health farm.

That Christmas Day in 1971, while I was with Penny and the children, she phoned to say: 'Yes, I want to be with you.'

Fellow legend Stephen Fry wrote a tribute to the icon, who was a national treasure and started working in show business when he was just 

She moved into my flat, and appeared with me on a series of nightclub dates, but the public didn't suspect anything at first. It seemed quite natural that the star of The Generation Game should be seen with his TV hostess.

But when we went to Canada together, in a touring version of the London Palladium show, a Fleet Street showbiz writer saw us together and sensed a story. He asked me if Anthea was the kind of girl I'd like to marry and, realising we could no longer hide our love, I replied: 'Yes. If things work out right, I will marry her.'

I'd taken the precaution of telling Penny about Anthea before we left, but when the story broke — with headlines proclaiming 'Bruce's 20-Year Marriage Is Over' — there were problems. The reporters didn't understand that we'd been living apart for years.
One interview appeared in which Penny complained bitterly about my conduct, saying: 'I knew he'd take a bird with him.' Of course, I realise that she might have been misquoted.
The BBC were difficult about it, too. At first they wanted Anthea to leave the show, but I told them that if she went, so did I. She had done nothing wrong, and did not deserve to be dropped.

The producers responded by bringing in four former beauty queens in stunning halter-neck gowns, while Anthea was put in the frumpiest grey dress with a frill under her chin. She looked like a choirboy.

My divorce from Penny was fraught and very expensive, but by the end of 1973 everything was sorted out and on Christmas Eve Anthea and I were quietly married at Windsor Register Office.

I didn't invite my daughters: I was terrified of what their mother's reaction would be, and didn't want it to ruin Christmas. So I planned to tell them on Boxing Day.

What I didn't know was that a so-called friend who was taking photographs that day had sold some pictures to the papers.

A reporter called Penny that evening, to ask for her reaction, and my oldest daughter, Debbie, who was 18, rang to ask if it was true. Determined to break the news face-to-face, I decided to lie on the phone, and denied it: 'Darling, it's a rumour. The Press are always saying we've got married.'

Paddy McGuinness said: 'I had the pleasure of interviewing the great man at the Palladium many years ago. Sir Bruce Forsyth, the king of light entertainment'

You can imagine how I felt, and how my daughters felt, when we saw the photos in the papers on Boxing Day morning. I explained as best I could, but the girls were in tears, and we had to cancel our lunch and the trip I'd planned to the cinema.

Viewing figures for The Generation Game continued to soar, reaching 19 million. Not everyone was impressed: Radio 4's Woman's Hour nominated me as Male Chauvinist Pig of the Year — because 'his wife Anthea is given so little to do on the show'.

I told them, in jest of course, that Anthea was already cooking, sewing, ironing, walking the dogs, and bringing me my slippers... so how could we possibly ask her to do any more on the show? Not all the listeners got the joke!

Anthea suffered the ordeal of two miscarriages, before our daughters were born — Charlotte in 1976 and Louisa a year later. Because she enjoyed motherhood so much, she was travelling with me less. Many people suggested at the time it would have been understandable for me to want no more children.

But as a Pisces, I always see the other person's point of view and, knowing how desperately Anthea wanted a baby, how could I disappoint her?

Seeing so little of her did, in time, place an additional strain on our marriage, which was already suffering because of my workload.

Sadly, we drifted apart. The romance had disappeared. The final break came when I was invited to Tobago in the West Indies to play in a charity golf match. I asked Anthea to bring our two little girls with her, but she didn't want to come at all.

'I felt I couldn't keep taking the two babies on and off planes, just to be with him,' she told a newspaper. 'Maybe that was wrong of me.'

It was more than a year later that I was invited to be a judge at the 1980 Miss World contest, at the Royal Albert Hall. When the last of my fellow judges arrived, I was stunned — she looked like a South American princess, with long black hair and flawless 'cappuccino' skin.

Her face was perfectly proportioned, her dark, limpid eyes were enormous, and her curvaceous body was every woman's dream come true. I was besotted.

At the party after the pageant, I asked her to dance, and it was like electricity passing between our bodies. As we danced, she told me her name was Wilnelia Merced, and that she was born in Puerto Rica. At 17, she had been crowned Miss World. All that evening, we never stopped dancing and talking. 'I can't believe you are English,' she told me — 'you dance like a Latin!'

I kept phoning her after that, but she was a difficult person to reach. When we did meet again, Wilnelia was wary because one of her friends had warned her that I had five daughters and 'a bit of a reputation'. But I knew I had to keep seeing her, and continued to invite her out every day until she returned to New York.

Then, for the next two years, we conducted a clandestine transatlantic romance, meeting in America, Spain, the Caribbean, or wherever we could.

Claudia Winkleman and Tess Daly with their friend and colleague, the late Sir Bruce Forsyth 

In 1982, at the age of 54, I got down on my knees and asked her to marry me. To my delight, she said yes.

We were anxious about introducing her to my daughters, especially as one of them, Debbie, is actually older than Wilnelia, who is 30 years my junior.

But all the girls took to her at once and I can honestly say that, over the years, she has brought my family closer together. And we have enlarged it: in 1986, our son Jonathan Joseph, or JJ, was born.

Although I have been married three times, I am good friends with my ex-wives and have remained close to my daughters.

I'm proud of that. I hope I've been a good dad, even though I didn't see as much of the girls when they were young as I would have liked.

And I am so grateful for Wilnelia's love. She's given me a real sense of peace. She was worth waiting for!

Adapted from Strictly Bruce: Stories Of My Life (Bantam, £20) and Bruce: The Autobiography (Pan, £14.99) © Bruce Forsyth. To order copies at £16 and £6.39 respectively (offer valid to September 9, 2017), visit www.mailbookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640. P&P free on orders over £15



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