How did Cliff Richard, the smouldering screen prodigy and first authentic British rock'n'roller, become the oft-lampooned national institution of four decades on? It is usually seen as some kind of crazy fluke that the man without whom there would have been not only no Beatles in the form that we know them, but also no David Bowie and even - heaven forbid - no Damon Albarn, ended up leading last year's Wimbledon centre-court crowd in an a cappella chorus of "Summer Holiday". In fact, the development of Cliff's career has followed its own impeccable logic - as ripe with racial, religious and sexual ambiguity as any professor of cultural studies could wish it to be.
To spill onto the street outside Manchester's Palace Theatre after a performance of Heathcliff and hear passers-by whispering fearfully, "Cliff Richard fans - woahh, scary," is to understand the thrill experienced by the football hooligan and Michael Heseltine's hairdresser: the thrill of being utterly outside the confines of respectable society. And yet this is to the objective eye a very entertaining production. How could any show in which Cliff Richard savagely beats up his wife while calling her a "pitiful, slavish, mean-minded bitch" in an accent pitched midway between Barnsley and Tokyo possibly be anything else?
You would think it was the job of the critic to encourage performers to take chances, but the reaction of the theatre-reviewing establishment to Heathcliff has not borne this out. The reason for the mauling given to Cliff's bold attempt to bring Emily Bronte's hero to life in song is not hard to divine: the show's inevitable success was a cruel reminder of the futility of all critical endeavour. And so it has proved, as all the vitriol expended upon it has not stopped Heathcliff grossing an imposing pounds 10m in the past six months, leaving Sir Cliff Richard- not for the first time in his 56 years - laughing all the way to the bank.
A first attempt to meet him in his rooms at the gloriously camp new Victoria and Albert Hotel in Manchester - opposite the Granada Studios Tour, with appropriately TV-themed accommodation (Cliff is in the Sherlock Holmes room, which his personal assistant, Roger, describes as "very masculine") - is frustrated by an untimely bout of the flu. "Cliff," Roger proclaims ominously, "has cancelled tennis." Is there any chance that he might be well enough to talk tomorrow? "I don't think you understand, Cliff never cancels tennis."
A few weeks later - at the David Lloyd sports centre in Raynes Park, south London - Cliff Richard is sufficiently recovered to have been making up his tennis deficiency. Resplendent in neatly pressed sportswear, the photographer has sat him in front of a very glittery gold curtain which, his personal assistant points out, looks like something from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. But Cliff sits in front of it without a word of complaint. He is one of those people who is so famous it seems impertinent to look him in the eye, but his voice is better modulated than the flutey gush of a thousand bad impersonations and, from the onset, he is unexpectedly willing to engage in meaningful discussion.
All of the interviews he's done for Heathcliff have mentioned what a great impression Wuthering Heights made on him when he first read it as a child. But at no point does anybody seem to have asked him why. Presumably, one reason the story of a dark-skinned outsider might have appealed to the young Harry Webb was that the hero's situation resembled his own at the time: his family having just left India (where he had spent the first eight years of his life) at the time the country gained its independence, for an England that was unknown to him. "I certainly had a good tanned skin when we came back," he admits, "and I remember getting in fights all the time - I used to get called an 'Indibum', and all that business. People would say, 'Are you going home to your tepee now?' " He laughs with understandably little mirth. "I suppose that is part of what drew me to Heathcliff."
Cliff's father worked for the railway in India but for all the trauma that gripped the sub-continent in the Forties, his childhood memories have an idyllic feel to them. "I remember there was an aunt about a mile away and she was the only one who'd let us eat with our fingers. I also remember flying kites - diamond-shaped kites with tiny triangular tails - and going to my grandparents' house in Lucknow: the train stopped against the buffers and that was it, there was nowhere else to go. They had about 10 dogs, and I've never minded dogs barking since, because there was no other security, but you'd be in bed and you'd hear them barking, Woof! Woof!" Cliff essays a passable hound, "and you'd think: 'I'm safe'."
Was it frightening to have to leave all that behind and come to England? "It was very exciting, actually, because I'd been brought up by my parents, aunts and uncles who were always talking about 'When we go back'. India wasn't ours: I may have been born there, but I was British, and we'd always been told we were going home, so it wasn't like going to a strange place. We were excited ... we were going home to Blighty."
All the exotic influences with which the first few years of Harry Webb's life were coloured could not prepare his teenage self for the impact of Elvis Aaron Presley. Like so many of his British contemporaries - Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, Robb Storm - before he could call himself a performer, he felt obliged to change his name in tribute to the new and thrilling reality of Chuck and Buddy and Jerry Lee. "Harry Roger Webb just didn't cut it - it didn't sound like Elvis."
How did he come to settle on Cliff Richard? "I just liked it - it felt like a rock'n'roll name. We [Cliff and his first real band, the Drifters, who became the Shadows in 1959] wrote dozens of possibilities on labels to see what they looked like: first, it was Russ Clifford, then we changed it to Cliff Russord, and the final one was Cliff Richards with an 's'. But Ian Samwell, the guy who wrote 'Move It', said, 'Why not take the 's' off? Then you've got two Christian names, which is unusual and people are bound to call you Cliff Richards in interviews and that way you get to correct them and mention your name twice.'
"I think we did a lot to pave the way for bands like the Beatles," Cliff insists, not unreasonably. "When you think about it, if we hadn't been here, the Beatles could have been us. I remember John Lennon saying, 'Cliff and the Shadows had it sewn up,' so they went away to Germany and found the next step, which was even bigger than us, but that's always the way. We invent football and tennis and everyone else plays them better than we do, but that's part of the evolution. We might be the lower rungs of the ladder, but without those lower rungs you couldn't get to the top."
This seems a very modest view to take of one's own role in things. "I know a lot of people think I'm a no-no as a musical entity, but when they're writing text books, I will have to be in there. People will hate it, but I will have to be in there."
The pages of those text books which have already been written are littered with the names of singers - Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Aretha Franklin - who have wavered between the Devil's music and the Lord's songs with no subsequent loss of critical credibility. And yet Cliff Richard's Christianity (first embraced, after brief flirtations with Judaism and Jehovah's Witnessing, in the spiritual crisis that followed the early death of his strict disciplinarian father in 1961) has somehow been seen as irredeemable. Does he himself have any idea as to why this might be?
"You have to remember that America is, or was, a very religious country, where people were brought up to express their feelings by singing in church, but that's not so much part of our culture. I also think there's something very intimidating about someone who's singing something you know they actually believe." Cliff pauses, before continuing combatatively, "But that's other people's hang-up, not mine: they should be strong enough in their non-belief to recognise what's good artistically. I can play records that have sentiments I don't particularly like, but if the sound of them is good, I can put up with the sentiment."
Could he give us an example of the sort of thing he means? "It's like that song 'Cocaine'. I heard it in a restaurant in New Zealand and I just had to go out and buy the album [Troubadour by J J Cale ]. I love the music and it's a fantastic song, but it doesn't turn me on to cocaine."
"Well, only at the weekends," I quip.
The room is suddenly very quiet. Local shopkeepers roll down their shutters and young children are ushered into storm-proofed cellars. How will Sir Cliff respond to this lapse into jocularity? After a very long pico-second, he laughs, trees blossom, and birds feel safe in their nests again.
He is roused to considerable ire, though, by another suggestion - the idea that perhaps the "fantastic talents" of which, he says, the music industry has been deprived over the years by drinking and drugs, might not have expressed themselves in the same way without the Diony-sian indulgences that eventually destroyed them. "But if we excuse people from doing it, they'll continue," he insists. "I've watched my sisters' kids growing up [Cliff has three sisters]. They stick their fingers in the jam. Mum says, 'Don't do that, you'll get it on your clothes and spoil it for other people.' They look at her straight in the eyes and do it again. When that happens, you smack their wrist and say, 'Don't do that,' and they learn not to - they want to do it, but they learn not to, and do you know why? Because it does spoil the jam.
"When we have adults behaving like children," Cliff continues sternly, "then society becomes the parents. They're looking society in the eye and saying, 'I'm going to have my jam,' and what we really ought to be doing is taking their hypodermic needles and smacking them across the bums and saying, 'Don't be such silly people. You have a fantastic life without this crap.' I've watched people doing it and thought, 'This is like putting my hand in the fire just to see if it does really burn,' and I think, 'No, it does burn and I'm not going to put my hand in it.' "
Accordingly, he gives short shrift to rock rebels from the Rolling Stones (who, he claims rather intriguingly, were "notorious for throwing porridge out the windows") to Oasis. "It's just a shame that part of what gives them their kick is their self-destructive impulse," he says of the mercurial Mancunians, "because it means their fans will eventually be denied the source of that pleasure." But isn't knowing that it can't last a vital part of the pleasure of the whole thing? It's like a sunset, it's not supposed to last for ever. Cliff shakes his head: "That's too complicated for me. The thing with a sunset is, you know it's going to come again the same time the next day."
Presumably he is aware that his vision of longevity as the ultimate rock'n'roll virtue makes him something of a renegade figure? "But I am a renegade figure," he proclaims, only half laughing. "It seems to me that I'm the only radical rock star there's ever been - because I don't follow the trends that all these other berks go through: I don't drug it up. I don't curse and spit blood at the audience. But all the others did so, in some respects. I am the only radical one and I like that. I like being out on my own. And I thought that would have been applauded - I thought being someone different was good."
At the heart of Cliff Richard's difference is, of course, his enduring bachelorhood, with its intriguing corollary of sexual abstinence. "To be honest with you," he notes sanguinely, "I never thought I would be single all my life, but I don't go around worrying about it like I did when I was 25. I used to worry about it a lot when the Shadows all got married - they all got divorced as well but that's not the point. The point is that people who are single shouldn't have to be second-class citizens - we needn't be embarrassed or feel guilty about it, we all have a role to play. If you look at the New Testament, Saint Paul never got married and one of the reasons he didn't was because he had given his whole life to what he was doing."
There is nothing monastic, though, about the mood at Heathcliff. One whiff of the headily eroticised atmosphere in the auditorium could stun a randy spaniel, and when the star of the show reappears in the second half dressed in a kimono, the crowd emits an audible grunt of desire. Cliff Richard's sexual attractiveness to the women who go to see him is traditionally portrayed in comic terms - as if their pleasure was somehow worth less than anyone else's. The fact is, his avowed celibacy makes him more rather than less suitable as a subject of erotic intrigue. The sensual bond between Cliff and his female fan base is the canny elder sister of the adolescent girl's traditional infatuation with the androgynous teen idol.
"I'm quite happy with the fact that my audience is predominantly female," he says cheerfully, "I am predominantly male after all." Does he mind the idea of sexual gratification being derived from his performance? "My decision to be single and celibate is something I've decided based on my faith, and of course it shouldn't damage the fact that I might have an appeal for somebody. Male/female attraction is a normal thing that happens regularly and it's part of life that women in the audience might have some kind of fantasy about you."
Would it upset him to feel that he was attracting the same feelings from the men in his audience? "It wouldn't upset me, but I don't know that I've tended to have that affect on men - I don't think they stay away from my concerts because of that, do they? They're not worried about what affect I might have on them. It's just that they're usually quite a macho group of people who might think I'm gay, and somehow they'll be seen as wimps if they come to my concerts."
Everyone always wants to believe that Cliff Richard is sitting on a dark secret: that his companionable domestic circumstances - he shares a house in Weybridge with his guru and publicity manager Bill Lantham and Bill's girlfriend Jill - are a cover for orgies that would make Caligula blush. No one seems to realise that he is a far more fascinating figure if taken at face value: not as some kind of plaster saint, but as someone doing his best to lead a life that accords with his principles.
One of the most plausible explanations advanced for his celibacy has been that it resulted from feelings of guilt that his father's fatal illness coincided with the public unravelling of Cliff's illicit entanglement with the wife of the Shadows' bass player. "I've always been the first person to say if you want perfection do not look to me," Cliff insists. "I've been there and done it all." Not quite all, surely? "Well, I haven't killed anybody, but I don't know if there are too many other commandments I haven't broken. The last thing a Christian should say is that they aren't a sinner: if you're not a sinner, you don't need redemption."
Is that what he's enjoyed so much about Heathcliff - the chance to be a sinner in public? "It's incredibly satisfying. I go out there and for two and a half hours, I can scream and beat my wife and viciously pump my stepfather's face into the table. These are ugly things, but there is something liberating about it, because suddenly I'm not Cliff Richard for a while." It must be quite a relief not to be Cliff Richard every now and then... "It is" - as Harry Webb laughs the afternoon sun glints off the gold curtain momentarily to give his bearded face the aspect of a Greek Orthodox icon - "It really is."
! 'Heathcliff', showing at the Hammersmith Apollo (0171 416 6058), has been extended to run to 17 May.