Cilla Black, who has died aged 72, broke through in the 1960s as a buck-toothed pop singer in the Merseybeat boom and went on to become one of the enduring stars of television light entertainment, hosting the brassy Saturday night favourites Surprise, Surprise and Blind Date.
In August 1963 she was a 20-year-old typist in a Liverpool office. A month later, having left the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein smitten, she recorded her first hit, Love of the Loved, a Paul McCartney number. By 1965 she had become the female symbol of British youth – with two No 1 hits and a season at the London Palladium, and by 1968 she was a millionaire at 25. A quarter of a century later she was the highest-paid female entertainer on British television.
Cilla Black: an enduring star of light entertainment (Rex Features)
She made a career out of what one critic described as “the phenomenon of ordinariness”. Indeed she would scarcely demur at the description “dead common”. “Class, I haven’t,” she conceded, “but style I’ve got.” As the Liverpool docker’s daughter and ingenue pop star trailing in the Beatles’ wake, Cilla Black resolutely adhered to type: lacquered mane of flame-red hair (the consequence of a sixpenny rinse at the age of 13) short skirts, long legs and a strong Scouse accent.
After starring in her own BBC series Cilla in the late 1960s, she moved to ITV to star in a live Saturday night variety show, popping up “somewhere in Britain” with a camera crew to knock at someone’s front door. She once famously disturbed a man who skulked blinking on to his balcony followed by someone else’s wife wrapped in a sheet; another “Come on, luv, it’s Cilla ‘ere” intrusion took her into a room where rows of embarrassed men on chairs who muttered one-word answers to her increasingly querulous questions turned out to be the clientele of the local brothel.
Cilla Black in 1968 (Rex Features)
It was her ability to combine mischievous curiosity with deadpan humour that sealed her success with Surprise, Surprise (1984) on ITV, the strangely gripping show for which she was paid £15,000 a week. As well as emotional reunions of long-lost relatives, the show featured “Cillagrams”, in which she again turned up at a location unannounced but this time marking some special occasion with a song. Invited to the run-down port of Holyhead by the local Mayor, she sang Hooray for Holyhead in the main street, the watching crowds swelled by the staff of Woolworths who trooped out to hear her while looters trooped in through the back door and plundered the shop.
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.”
But accusations of bad taste followed when, at Christmas 1987, the show took her to a hospital at Zeebrugge where victims of the ferry disaster were being treated, and she led medical staff and survivors through the streets of Bruges singing Little Drummer Boy.
“She really is a battler,” noted The Daily Telegraph critic, “and has honed to a fine edge her skills of cajolery, intimacy and self-deprecation .”
Cilla Black:’I was a bit of fun and a bit of Scouse rough and everybody liked me, I was normal’ (Television Stills)
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. She had seen the show while touring in Australia, thought it hysterical and urged LWT to make a British version. The programme was compulsive viewing for many, although it 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. Paul O’Grady and Dale Winton were both lined up to replace her, but the show was cancelled after she left.
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, the rough and ready “Scottie Road” of Liverpool folklore and an Irish-Catholic stronghold; until she was nine, they had no indoor lavatory and bathed in a tin tub in front of the kitchen stove.
Educated at St Anthony’s Catholic secondary modern school nearby, she left at 15 to learn office skills at Anfield Commercial College. Within a year, she had taken a job at £4 a week as a filing clerk at British Insulated Callenders Cables, where she typed and deployed her 80wpm shorthand, supplementing her wages during her lunch hour by checking the coats at the Cavern Club, the up-and-coming music venue in 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, who rejected her after she underwent an impromptu audition in the middle of a Beatles show at the Majestic ballroom in Birkenhead; she sang Gershwin’s Summertime but it was not in her key.
Cilla Black: ‘naturally funny’ (Rex Features)
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 (the local Mersey Beat newspaper had mistakenly called her by the wrong colour) she made her first proper appearance with the Beatles at the Odeon, Southport, on August 30 1963, watched by Epstein’s father, Harry, who predicted she would be “the next Gracie Fields”.
A week later, over Sunday tea, Cilla and her father signed a contract with Brian Epstein. She was to be his first designer pop star.
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 number one with Burt Bacharach’s Anyone Who Had A Heart. The American singer 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.”
Epstein had heard Warwick’s record in the USA and had returned to Britain with a copy which he played to the producer George Martin. He immediately declared it would be perfect for Shirley Bassey. When Epstein insisted he had earmarked it for Cilla, Martin doubted that the Liverpool singer had the vocal ability to pull off such a powerful number. In the event Cilla’s recording sold a million copies.
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. She appeared in that year’s Royal Variety Performance, where she met Gracie Fields, who did not take to her. Nor did Noël Coward, watching in the stalls, who thought her “ghastly beyond belief”.
In November 1966 she appeared with the comedian Frankie Howerd in Way Out in Piccadilly (Prince of Wales), the start of a long-standing friendship between them. The following year 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’s ordinary and unassuming,” noted Philip Purser in The Sunday Telegraph, “and still tickled to death at being plucked out of the typing pool by the great god Pop.”
Cilla Black with her husband Bobby Willis in 1992 (Rex Features)
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 LWT, 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. She became a regular guest at Birt’s lunches for fellow celebrity Scousers when, with the likes of Anne Robinson, Roger McGough and Robert Runcie, then Archbishop of Canterbury, she tucked in to chip butties, scouse stew with pickled beetroot and jelly and evaporated milk.
Cilla Black never refused an interview request, the River Room at the Savoy being her venue of choice, and the presence of her beloved husband being a pre-condition – a relic of her being invited, by one journalist in the 1960s, to stroke his war wound.
Politically, she swung from supporting Harold Wilson in the 1960s to backing John Major in the 1990s. She was an enthusiastic supporter of Margaret Thatcher . In August 2014, she was one of 200 public figures who were signatories to a letter to the Guardian opposing Scottish independence in the run-up to September’s referendum.
Cilla Black 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 television presenter. “I always think of myself as a singer. That’s what I want on my gravestone: Here lies Cilla Black, singer. Not TV presenter.”
Appointed OBE in 1997, the proudest moment of her career, she once declared, was “absolutely rubbing shoulders with and meeting the Royal family”. At her own palatial 10-bedroomed house in Denham, Buckinghamshire, once owned by Sir Malcolm Sargent and bought in 1965 for £40,000, she enjoyed her 17-acre garden and, in keeping with her lifelong frugality, vacuumed it herself every Sunday (the housekeeper’s day off) “in case the Queen drops in”.
She published her memoirs, Step Inside, in 1985. In 1994 she turned down an honorary fellowship from Liverpool John Moores University (formerly Polytechnic) when some of the students complained it would “devalue” their degrees.
In 2014 the actress Sheridan Smith gave a highly acclaimed performance in Cilla, a three-part television drama about Cilla Black’s rise to fame, acted, noted The Daily Telegraph, with a “killer combination of warmth, mischievousness and vulnerability”. Cilla herself described the portrayal as “terrific”, adding, “but God knows how she sang so well with those false teeth in.”
“I didn’t want to be Doris Day,” Cilla Black 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.
Cilla Black, born May 27 1943, died August 2 2015