Saturday 21 July 2018

Fun and laughter with Cilla, the Queen of Entertainment

Irish TV producer Colman Hutchinson worked for over 25 years with the late Cilla Black, producing 'Blind Date' and 'Surprise Surprise'. He recalls an amazing, warm, friendly woman who was a true star

John Kaye Cooper, Cilla Black and Colman Hutchinson on the set of Blind Date. Photo: Kieron McCarron
John Kaye Cooper, Cilla Black and Colman Hutchinson on the set of Blind Date. Photo: Kieron McCarron
TV talents Gay Byrne, Colman Hutchinson and Chris Tarrant

I remember clearly the day in September 1989, when I first met Cilla Black. Having spent eight years on RTE's Late Late Show, I moved to London in 1985, and I had been working as a freelance producer around the ITV network when I got the call, asking if I would like to take over as producer of Blind Date. I was, of course, thrilled and excited to accept. Blind Date, presented by Cilla, was the top entertainment show at the time, and was attracting massive audiences. However, now as I stood in Studio 1 at London Weekend Television, awaiting her arrival, I was so so nervous.

Cilla was an icon, someone who had been, along with her pals The Beatles, an idol of mine since childhood, I had bought Anyone Who Had A Heart when I was 10 years old, and watched the Cilla Show on BBC, as she invited me to Step Inside Love in the Sixties. How was she going to be?

Then she arrived, coming down the steps at the back of the studio. She was taller than I expected, slim, wearing black trousers a white shirt and high heels. She had a presence, and you knew you were in the company of a star.

I was introduced, and she shook my hand. She seemed as though her thoughts were somewhere else at first, then she asked me which part of Ireland I was from, then joked that she was from the capital of Ireland, Liverpool. We both laughed and suddenly I felt at ease, she was warm and friendly, and I felt like a contestant on Blind Date, immediately under her spell.

We got on like a house on fire from the beginning. My main memories now, as I look back, are not of the actual shows, but the times behind the scenes.

Every day before a recording of Blind Date, Cilla and her husband Bobby would come in for a meeting about the show. This consisted of me, Cilla and Bobby, and two researchers sitting in a meeting-room. The researchers took us through the details of the contestants and furnished us with pictures of them. Cilla was genuinely fascinated by them and wanted to know as much about them as possible. We would laugh and have discussions about who would get picked and who you wouldn't want to pick. Bobby would throw in a few droll asides, which weren't always politically correct, at which point Cilla would shout, "You can't say that Bobby", but would nevertheless, collapse with laughter.

On the night of the recording, I would go to Cilla's dressing-room to escort her to the studio. The routine was always exactly the same. She would be having the final touches to her make-up. Bobby would be watching the TV, and would always ask if we had a full audience. We always did, but the question was always asked, no star wants to play to a half-empty house.

Cilla and I would then make our way down the back stairs to the studio. There was a full-length mirror on our route, and she would always stop here, examine her outfit and check there was no lipstick on her teeth, and ask me if she looked ok, and, of course, she always did. Through the studio doors and we would hear the audience laughter as the audience warm-up man did just that, warmed them up. Cilla at this point was always sucking a sweet, the warm up man would then announce, "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the one, the only Miss Cilla Black" at which point Cilla would look panicked, as she was still sucking that sweet and would have to offload it, I learned to be prepared and always carried a tissue to relieve her of said sweet. The routine never changed. It was her showbiz superstition.

Two years later I was also offered the job of producing Surprise Surprise, Cilla's other massive show. This was a lot harder work, both for me and for Cilla. I, with the team, had to uncover interesting and heart-rending stories and get the subjects of these stories to the studio under false pretenses, which was no mean feat.

Cilla had to learn these stories in detail and could not use autocue, as if she did the person about to be surprised would also be able to read their story. Before the big reunion at the end of each show, there would always be a musical act, at which point Cilla and I would be backstage and I would point out the person in the audience that she had to surprise. On one particular occasion, as I pointed out the subject of this end reunion, I noticed, to my horror, that he had no teeth in. For some reason he had decided to leave his false teeth at home. I apologized to Cilla and said, I'm really sorry, but when the researcher met him under cover he had a full set, top and bottom. She immediately said, "Don't worry, I'll handle it".

She went on and called for John to join her on 'The Cilla Sofa', he came down, and on his arrival, she said "Ah, Chuck, if you'd known you were going to be on the telly, I guess you would have put your teeth in"; big laugh and round of applause from the audience, awkward moment recovered. That's a talent you can't teach someone, that was the common touch that made her so special.

At the end of the show, we would have to wait to see that everything was recorded ok. Cilla would then say, "Do we have a clear", reply from producer, Yes. Cilla's next line never changed, "Ladies and gentlemen we have a clear … bit like having a smear test really"; huge laughter from audience and then they would wend their way out of the studio.

Cilla and I would then go to the green room to meet all the participants and have a glass of champagne. I would shadow her around the room, reminding of her of who was who, they would ask for autographs and some would have brought her little gifts, these were handed over to me to hold.

I was a bit like a lady in waiting to the Queen. But she was a Queen, The Queen of Entertainment. I've been privileged to have been a part of Cilla's life for over a quarter of a century. I was involved with her 30 and 50 years in Showbusiness specials, and the ITV tribute show that was transmitted last week. She welcomed my wife Sharon and me to her house in Buckinghamshire, her penthouse in London and her villa in Spain. We've been to amazing parties that were filled with stars, but the main thing I will always remember is the fun and the laughter. An amazing woman, and a true star.

Sunday Indo Living

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment