Wanted: 'Blind Date' host who can fill the shoes of Cilla Black

The search to replace a national treasure begins this week after Cilla Black stunned viewers and ITV executives by declaring live on air that the current series of
Blind Date would be her last.

The search to replace a national treasure begins this week after Cilla Black stunned viewers and ITV executives by declaring live on air that the current series of Blind Date would be her last.

Black's announcement, after 18 years at the helm of the dating programme, provided ITV with a ready-made excuse to scrap the show. But a spokesman said last night the 19th series would be filmed in the autumn with a new presenter.

Audiences have fallen from a peak of 17 million in 1991 to below 5 million for some shows in the series before the current one. But a recent revamp is believed to have rejuvenated the format, and audiences are now steady at about 6 million.

Sources said Black's surprise decision to quit could clear the way for a male host. But they acknowledged the veteran entertainer, 59, would be a hard act to follow.

A camp star similar to Dale Winton might be on the cards. Patrick Kielty, the Irish chat-show host who presented BBC1's Fame Academy, could also be in the running.

Female contenders include Cat Deeley, Kielty's Fame Academy co-presenter, and Claire Sweeney, the former Brookside star who won hearts in Celebrity Big Brother in March 2001.

Davina McCall, who presented Big Brother and Popstars – The Rivals, is said to have ruled herself out. Insiders said she was approached about the role after Black hinted last autumn she was considering stepping down.

The Liverpool-born star began her career 40 years ago as a singer. She went on to be one of the most popular figures in light entertaintment, hosting BBC shown in the Seventies. With Blind Date she found herself a staple of Saturday nights, with only a temporary suspension of broadcasts when her husband, Bobby Willis, died of cancer three years ago.

But she was unhappy when the show was moved for the Premiership football, even though it was later restored.

She was also distressed by inaccurate reports that a successor was being lined up. And she found herself in contract limbo after her lucrative golden handcuffs deal with ITV, said to be worth £1m a year, ended recently.

While spokesmen for ITV insisted yesterday she was not leaving in anger, the cavalier resignation to a live audience suggested Black was making a point. She said she wanted to leave before it became a chore.

"Over New Year, I thought a lot about what I wanted to do in 2003, and decided that it was the right time to move on from Blind Date," she told viewers. She is certainly unlikely to disappear from public view. She has signed a contract to produce her memoirs and is bringing out an album this year. ITV executives have made clear that they still hope to work with her.

Paul Jackson, director of entertainment at Granada which makes the shows, said: "This year Cilla will be celebrating 40 years in showbusiness and we hope to be celebrating with her. We wish Cilla nothing but success for the future."

Only last month Black had said she did not believe anyone else could replace her. "I am a sacred cow," she said.

But with dating shows still attracting good audiences, the revamped Blind Date is regarded as having potential by executives all too aware how hard it is to find light entertainment hits.

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