Ned Sherrin and John Birt love her. And so do you

All around Britain, middle-class people are are coming out of the closet about their predilection for 'Blind Date'. James Rampton finds out why it's now okay to love the irrepressible Cilla Black

Are you in the closet? Most middle-class people are. We suffer from a secret vice. We are afflicted by The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. We are clandestine devotees of Blind Date.

Cilla Black is mystified by the shame attached to watching the programme she has presented for 13 years. One paper reckoned that it was "too smutty and littered with sexual innuendo". This may be one reason why she has given very few press interviews in the past five years. "The broadsheets say it's downmarket," Black sighs. "A lot of my friends are in that circle, and if I go to one of their cocktail parties, I'll get a politician saying, 'Blind Date is a bit downmarket, isn't it?' But they all watch it - how else would they know it's downmarket, for God's sake?"

But there are growing signs that not all middle-class, high-brow people despise Blind Date. The broadcaster and theatre director Ned Sherrin is an out and proud Blind Date groupie: if he's going out to the theatre, he tapes the programme. He greatly respects the presenter whose reported pounds 3.5m, two-year deal with LWT makes her the highest-paid woman on British television.

"As usual with the newspapers, there is snobbery about Cilla because she earns an awful lot of money," Sherrin says. "It's the tall-poppy syndrome. She's actually much more middle-class than most of the people who write about her. Journalistic scum being superior about this flower of Middle England is just a case of jealousy or inverted snobbery."

Unafraid to declare his passion, he ups his bid to become President of the Cilla Black Appreciation Society: "I'd defy anyone else to have the same feeling of bonhomie and lassishness. Thanks to her, Blind Date is the best bit of kitsch TV going. All human life is there."

Sherrin is not her only posh fan. Sir John Birt, once director of programmes at Black's employers, LWT, and now Director General of the BBC, rates her highly because "her chief qualities are the classic Northern virtues of warmth, good humour and the enjoyment of others ... they allow her to oversee that show [Blind Date] in a non-threatening, non-sexual way."

Meanwhile, Sir Peter Hall, who directed Black in her only significant film, Work Is a Four-Letter Word, thinks she has "a popular empathy which is very interesting. It's comparable to Gracie Fields." So, it's clear, then: it is now quite legitimate and unembarrassing to like Blind Date.

If Black herself feels embattled by the haughtiness of certain sections of the press, she hides it well. She is as bouncy and uncrushable as her famous "her" (hair). How does she keep up this irrepressible bubbliness? "I'd have thought the substantial pay cheque helps," Sherrin deadpans, "But she does have a wonderful joie de vivre."

"I have a relish for life in general," says Cilla. "I don't have to be on TV to feel it. I'm not a very good cook, but I cook with the same relish I have for making a TV show. I'm only glad that what I do on TV is better than what I do in the kitchen."

But what exactly is it that she does on TV? What is it that makes her one of the few stars in the light-entertainment firmament who are known by just a first name (as in Bruce, Noel and Des)?

We meet in a conference room at LWT, where Cilla Black is surrounded by glamorous publicity photos of herself. She may have glitzy "her" (regular as clockwork, it changes colour every three weeks); expensive clothes (even her glinting belt-buckle proclaims "I earn lots of money"), and reported nose and teeth jobs. She may sip chilled champagne in the afternoon (well, how else am I to get through a gruelling interview with one of those toffee-nosed broadsheets, she might argue). But the secret of her success lies in her extraordinary ordinariness. She has become abnormally wealthy by being abnormally normal.

Everything about her - from her 29-year marriage to her manager Bobby Willis, during which they have never spent a night apart, to her three beloved boys - gives off this air of the solid, the artless, the down- to-earth, the next-door. She's your mum, your favourite auntie and your best girlie friend all rolled into one. In Birt's view, "She's like the friendly older sister who wants people to go out and have a good time." The revered film critic Pauline Kael once referred to "the redheaded goddess of the ordinary". She was actually alluding to the actress Molly Ringwald, but she might just as well have been talking about "our" Cilla.

Her mumsy, girly, sisterly attributes come in handy on all her vehicles - Blind Date, Surprise, Surprise, and her latest game show, The Moment of Truth, which begins on Saturday. In a format imported from Japan, Cilla will invite families to win big prizes by mastering a discipline like fruit-juggling or plate-spinning within a week. It's The Generation Game meets The Price Is Right.

As if to underline her normality, Black won't tolerate too much risque behaviour on her shows. LWT apparently chose her for the pilot of Blind Date in 1983 because she was "the most inoffensive person on TV". She once put down a Blind Date lad who was hitting on her with the line: "Oh please, I've got food in my freezer older than you." If contestants overstep the mark during a recording of Blind Date, she turns to camera and says: "That's an edit." "I've never gone down the smutty road. I've brought up three boys, and I don't want to encourage that in young children."

Given those sentiments, she was obviously stung when an ITC report criticised Blind Date for its raciness. "That happened four years ago, but when someone puts a label on something, it sticks. Out of 18 shows, we had six complaints, which is less than half a complaint a show."

If she sounds touchy about criticism of her shows, it is, she claims, only because she cares so much about them. "I have to have the little details right," she admits. "At rehearsals for The Moment of Truth, they had all the families' names on labels. I said, 'That's terrible - it's so rude. I'll have to remember all their names'."

Black - or White, as she then was - had been set on stardom since her earliest years in Liverpool, where her father was a docker and her mother ran a market-stall. "I'd been prepared for all that from the age of three, when I'd stand on the kitchen table performing for family and friends. I immediately got the bug. Even at the age of three, I thought someone would discover me. When I went to the careers tutors at school, I told them, 'I'm gonna be a star.' They gave me a withering look and replied, 'In the meantime, Priscilla, what are you going to do?' I've still got my school reference in the loft. It says: 'suitable for office-work.' "

She didn't have to wait long to prove them wrong. At the age of 19, she was taking a break from her duties as cloakroom attendant to sing "Bye Bye Blackbird" at the Cavern Club in Liverpool when, in time-honoured Hollywood movie fashion, she was approached by Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager, who signed her up to a recording-contract on the spot. She moved south to team up with George Martin at Abbey Road. "People asked me, 'Cilla, why are you leaving?' and I said those immortal words: 'Because I'm gonna be a star.' "

Black quickly notched up two No 1 singles ("Anyone Who Had a Heart" and "You're My World"), before going on, in 1968, to host BBC1's Cilla on Saturday nights for many years. With characteristic canniness, she realised that TV offered better long-term prospects: "You don't last long as a pop singer. If it's five years, you're a legend." Still, she went through a "quiet" period in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before a lively performance on Wogan in 1983 alerted LWT to her game-show-hostess potential.

Now she is so big, you only have to mention a couple of buzz-words - "t'raa", say, or "lorra" - for people to know who you're talking about. She was named Best Presenter by the Royal Television Society in 1996, and received a Bafta and a Lifetime Achievement gong at the British Comedy Awards last year. She has even been accorded the accolade of a spoof impersonation in a Harry Enfield "Scousers" sketch. Cilla and fame obviously get on like a house on fire: "I'd be upset if I wasn't asked for autographs."

Now 55, Black shows no sign of wanting to retire to a silent order in the Outer Hebrides. She's too "nosey" for that. "I love people. I'm so curious. I'd have made a good journalist. I love gossip, and I like to know what makes people tick. I've found out people's life histories just going shopping. If I had my time again, my name would be Oprah Winfrey by now."

Now that would be a surprise, surprise.

'The Moment of Truth' begins on ITV on Sat.

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