Praise be! It's the terrifying cult of Sir Cliff

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The Independent Culture
"WHEN YOU look back over the last 100 years," asked the TV presenter, "and you survey what's happened to humanity - the wars, the genocide - how do you feel? Does your faith keep you optimistic?"

I could hear only the sound from the television, so I was curious which spiritual heavyweight had crash-landed on BBC1's The Heaven and Earth Show. Desmond Tutu? Rabbi Julia Neuberger? The hypnotist Paul McKenna? If only. The reply came back, and my heart sank. "Being a Christian keeps you looking ahead," explained a voice imitated by every holiday-camp impressionist, "but I don't think God minds us getting angry. You know, I think he's big enough to take it."

Mid-Atlantic faux sincerity, supermarket theology, an audible sun tan - who else could it be but Cliff?

After nine years as a music journalist promoting new talent and ridiculing the attempts of anyone over 40 to remain hip, I'm rather pained that Cliff Richard is back at the summit of the charts. Even Radio 2 is in agreement with me this time, deciding that "The Millennium Prayer" - a daft hybrid of the Lord's Prayer and Auld Lang Syne - "did not have broad enough appeal"and joining Radio 1 in excising it from the play list.

Still, the efforts of us anti-Cliff sourpusses are as nothing compared to the might of the Barmy Cliff Army. It is this unspeakably disciplined, terrifyingly zealous cult that lies behind his latest record's success; indeed, the victory comes as a reward for the Long March they began early this year.

The BCA is uniformly female, almost exclusively middle-aged, and living proof that nothing fires the human soul like wanting what you can't have. There are those who would rather expend their last hormonal reserves on the bestial likes of Tom Jones than on a self-confessed celibate who's had sex three times, but the BCA wouldn't hear of such vulgarity. It is they who flocked to see Cliff's retooling of Wuthering Heights, who turn up at Wimbledon in the hope that it may pee down, and who recently launched a hopeless campaign to restore Cliff to the airwaves. Their chosen method of transport is the coach, and they probably keep the UK's hairspray manufacturers in business, but that isn't to characterise them as cultural cavewomen; as a quick skim through any search engine proves, these people are worryingly Net-literate.

In my capacity as a rock hack, I was invited on to Radio 5 Live to debate Cliff's wireless exile with one of the BCA's commanders. I have long been a fan of his late Seventies/ early Eighties purple patch - "Devil Woman", "We Don't Talk Anymore", "Wired For Sound" - but any chance of a Cliff- centric bonding was soon scuppered. I tried explaining that the days of the Light Programme were long gone, and that most radio stations catered for tightly defined demographics that were hardly likely to contain Cliff fans, but: "It's a democratic country!" she yelped, as if universal suffrage automatically entailed the ubiquity of "Livin' Doll" and "Mistletoe and Wine".

Still, there sits "The Millennium Prayer", where once perched Spice Girls and Gallaghers. The Barmy Cliff Army has had the last laugh. Along with Cherie's pregnancy, the return of the Hamiltons and the political ascendancy of another George Bush, Cliff's success proves that God may well be having a right old pre-millennial giggle.

What next? Try this. Cliff has recently announced that he fancies some time away from showbiz, so he can take stock and calmly enter his 60th year. I gather there's a prominent candidacy available, ideally suited to a flamboyant-yet-conservative individual, with an almost impossible lack of skeletons in his closet, who can quickly mobilise a tightly drilled bedrock of support.

The Tories should take note. Steven Norris? Nah! Vote Cliff!