Monday 11 December 2017

'I could have been the girl next door,' said singing star 'chosen by television'

20-year-old Cilla in 1963
20-year-old Cilla in 1963
Cilla receives her OBE in 1997

Dean Gray

Priscilla Maria Veronica White was born in Liverpool on May 27, 1943, the only daughter of a Mersey docker. Her mother ran a market stall selling stockings and trinkets.

The family lived in a four-roomed council flat above a barber's shop on Scotland Road, an Irish-Catholic stronghold.

Educated at St Anthony's Catholic secondary modern school nearby, she left at 15 to learn office skills. Within a year, she had taken a job at £4 a week as a filing clerk at British Insulated Callenders Cables, supplementing her wages during her lunch hour by checking the coats at the Cavern Club, the up-and-coming music venue on Mathew Street in Liverpool city centre. At night she sang with some of the emergent Merseybeat groups, such as Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and the Big Three.

At the nearby Iron Door club, she also sang with the still-unknown Beatles, courtesy of John Lennon, who called her 'Cyril'. In early 1962, Lennon introduced her to the Beatles' new manager, Brian Epstein.

He rejected her after she underwent an impromptu audition in the middle of a Beatles show.

Her luck changed when, accompanied by John Rubin's modern jazz group, she sang a few standards at the Blue Angel club, not knowing that, again, Epstein was in the audience.

By now the Beatles were on their way to stardom and Epstein's talent stable was expanding. "Why didn't you sing like that before?" Epstein asked. He was convinced that Cilla would become a huge star.

Having changed her name to Cilla Black, she made her first proper appearance with the Beatles at the Odeon, Southport, on August 30, 1963.

Cilla's first single, 'Love of the Loved', written by Paul McCartney, charted disappointingly at number 35. But in February 1964, she had her first No 1 with Burt Bacharach's 'Anyone Who Had A Heart'.

Dionne Warwick, who had already released her own recording of the song in the US, was miffed; while her version sounded effortless, it was apparent that, as one critic put it, "Cilla was straining her garters".

Cilla Black herself recalled 30 years later: "Dionne was dead choked and she's never forgiven me to this day."

When, in May, she followed up with a second No 1, 'You're My World', Cilla became the first British female singer to have two successive No 1 hits.

In 1967 she signed a £63,000 contract to present her own series, Cilla, on BBC Television. Paul McCartney wrote the signature tune, 'Step Inside Love', and the critics loved her.

She spent much of the 1970s out of the public eye to concentrate on bringing up her three children. An appearance on Terry Wogan's television chat show in 1983 was followed by a similar date with Jimmy Tarbuck on ITV.

This was seen by John Birt, then director of programmes for London Weekend Television, who was struck by her fresh, unaffected, and "delicious, naturally funny" style.

Realising her potential as a game show host, he booked her for 'Surprise, Surprise'.

It was her ability to combine mischievous curiosity with deadpan humour that sealed her success with 'Surprise, Surprise' (1984), the strangely gripping show for which she was paid £15,000 a week.

Unashamedly working-class, the show was panned by the critics as rubbish, but Cilla was unflinching.

"I didn't choose television. Television chose me," she said. "I was a bit of fun and a bit of scouse rough and everybody liked me, I was normal. I could have been the kid next door. And then I turned into the auntie next door. And now I'm the granny next door."

Her second television hit, 'Blind Date', launched in 1985, was a game of flirtatious lucky dip between the sexes, featuring participants separated by a screen who paired off without seeing each other amid laboured, scripted repartee. The programme was compulsive viewing for many but came to be criticised for its increasingly explicit sexual innuendo.

The success rate for many of the couples was low and most viewers tuned in to watch Cilla's brilliantly scathing put-downs delivered (usually to the men) with robust scouse grit. Three of the paired-up couples did, however, get as far as the altar after meeting on the show and Cilla was guest of honour at all three weddings. In January 2003, she announced during a live broadcast that she was leaving 'Blind Date' after 18 years.

Cilla was named ITV Personality of the Year for 'Blind Date' in 1987 and Variety Club Showbusiness Personality of 1991.

She won a Bafta in 1995, but disliked being labelled a TV presenter. "I think of myself as a singer. That's what I want on my gravestone: Here lies Cilla Black, singer. Not TV presenter."

Awarded an OBE in 1997, the proudest moment of her career, she once declared, was "absolutely rubbing shoulders with and meeting the royal family".

She published her memoir, 'Step Inside', in 1985.

"I didn't want to be Doris Day," Cilla once reflected, "but I wanted what went with it. She'd talk about her backyard and it was three acres of lawn; our backyard was where we kept the coal. I wanted her backyard, the fame and fortune. If there had been 'Blind Date' then, I would have been first in the queue."

Cilla Black married her long-time boyfriend and manager, Bobby Willis, in 1969. He died in 1999, and she is survived by their three sons; a daughter died at birth in 1975. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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