The Bachelor Boy

Profile: Cliff Richard; He doesn't like sex and for 30 years didn't eat lunch, but women have queued for days to see him as Heathcliff. Paul Vallely examines Cliff Richard's enduring appeal

It was Minnie Caldwell who started it. For those under 40 it had best be explained that Minnie Caldwell was one of a trio of Coronation Street tricoteuses who occupied the snug of the Rovers Return, lingering all evening over a milk stout and musing begrudgingly on the events of the day.

One evening in 1961 she made passing reference to the teenage idol of the moment, "that chubby Cliff Richard". The remark stung. The 12-and- a-half stone 21-year-old pop singer decided to go on a diet and get fit. The path was set for doing without lunch for 33 years (he has started to eat at midday again recently) and the daily tennis which have promoted the look of eternal youth as well as a deal of sneering (he once made the mistake of admitting that he preferred tennis to sex).

The conversion to lunching is not, apparently, a sign of weakening with the years. Cliff has never done that. It is due to his decision to put on a stone (from 11 to 12) for the eponymous lead role in Heathcliff, a musical version of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, which this week set a UK theatre record for advance sales when pounds 2.3m worth of tickets sold on first day of booking.

The surprising thing is that anyone should be surprised by the success. Sir Cliff Richard is without doubt, as one pop pundit had it, "the most successful British chart act of all time". He has sold 45 million singles over a 30-year period and is the only UK artist to have had hits - more than 100 of them - in every decade from the Fifties to the Nineties. Yet those who are not fans continue to puzzle over his enduring attraction.

The standard response is a faint derision. Those who camped out for days for tickets on the fourth floor of a car park at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham were described as "ladies of a certain age" (45 to 65).

Recent reports that Cliff is the man most women would want as their partner on a fantasy holiday (Mel Gibson was second) are qualified by the fact that the survey was conducted by Hoseasons. Newspaper profiles often carry the jibe that he is the same age as the rail union leader Jimmy Knapp. Urban myths about this Mary Poppins of the pop world include the malicious, and wholly erroneous, suggestion that he is the bearer of a colostomy bag. What is the cause of this sniggering and leering?

It might be his middle-of-the-road musical style. It might be his relentlessly Man at C&A fashion sense, which has always changed with the times but never departed from that basic template, albeit always choosing clothes designed for a man younger than his years; he is 56.

It might be his unashamed avowal of the very direct evangelical style of Christianity. When the Beatles were sitting at the feet of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India, Cliff (who was actually born in Lucknow, spent the first eight years of his life in colonial India and endured racist taunts for his sunburnt skin when he arrived at school in England) was being called up to the stage at Earls Court by the US evangelist Billy Graham.

It might even be his personal asceticism: in an era of material affluence Cliff revels in personal frugality - despite reportedly being worth pounds 25m he delights in underspending on the meagre pocket money he awards himself and gives up considerable time to working for Third World, medical and children's charities.

In fact the core reason is none of these. Sex is at the heart of both his success and the smirking. Go to his concerts and you will see that sex is what the public Cliff Richard sells, in a peculiarly antiseptic and choreographed form, to his middle-aged female fans. Yet sex is something in which the private man seems to have virtually no interest. The paradox is what titivates.

The pop idol's primary duty has always been, as the writer Philip Norman once memorably said, to represent sin it its most enviable forms. Cliff Richard offers almost the opposite. No drugs, no foul language, no guitar- smashing or room-wrecking, no large-scale self-indulgence and no sex.

It was not always so. In 1958 his television debut was greeted by the New Musical Express with tirades against TV depravity and the corruption of the young. It condemned his "violent hip-swinging" and "crude exhibitionism" and pronounced that "Tommy Steele became Britain's teenage idol without resorting to this form of indecent, short-sighted vulgarity."

It was, of course, never that potent. The young Cliff was a soft, unthreatening version of Elvis with none of his US counterpart's white trash undercurrent. Where Elvis was powerful, Cliff was sweet. Yet his early records, such as "Move It", were among the best of the early British rock 'n' roll.

How has he lasted so long. Others have survived but only by making more dramatic transitions: Tommy Steele become the latterday equivalent of a musical hall star; Adam Faith transmuted into a moderately successful character actor. Cliff, by contrast, kept up with the times, or rather just behind them.

In 1959 he and The Shadows found themselves in panto at the Globe Theatre, Stockton; in 1962 it was The Billy Cotton Band Show; in 1965 he compered Sunday Night at the London Palladium; in 1968 he made the first of two appearances singing for his country on the Eurovision Song Contest; in 1969 he starred on the Sooty Show; in the Seventies he became one of the first Western pop stars to appear behind the Iron Curtain; in 1980 he received the OBE, and in 1995 he took on the full status of Grade One listed pop star by singing with Vera Lynn at the VE Day anniversary celebrations.

How did he manage it? In the first (and best) of his movies, the satirical Expresso Bongo (The Young Ones, 1961, Summer Holiday, 1962 and Wonderful Life, 1964 all came later) he played an exploited young pop singer. Off screen, however, nothing could have been further from the truth - anyone less shrewd, determined or highly conscious of fashion could not have survived in the most competitive business in the world.

Nor is he a negligible musician. At a recent Greenbelt festival, the Christian equivalent of Glastonbury, he gave a solo performance of his big hits, accompanied only by his rather accomplished playing of his own guitar. Vocally he has a distinctively style of phrasing, so much so that even a professional cynic such as the pop writer Tony Parsons, listing Cliff's hits, concluded: "if you don't like at least some Cliff Richard, then you don't like pop music".

But in the end the key to his continued success is that slight frisson of safe sexuality. Cliff offers the expected quotient of on-stage pelvic thrusting but it is eerily sanitised and almost innocent. This ambiguity is at the heart of his persona. Cliff is the ever-available yet untouchable bachelor boy - never having suffered the setback of getting married he is at least still psychologically available to his fans. He is the fantasy lover who (apart from the wattling of his neck) did not grow old as those that they married grew old.

Most of his relationships have been platonic, according to his biographer, Steve Turner. Cliff has only had three serious romances: he lost his virginity at 18 to Carol Harris, the wife of his Shadows bass player, Jet; when 22, he had a passionate affair with Una Stubbs, then 24, on the set of the film Wonderful Life; and in the early Eighties he enjoyed a three- year friendship with former Wimbledon ace Sue Barker. "It was a doomed relationship. We attracted more attention than Charles and Di," Cliff complained when they split.

Repeatedly he has had to deny that he is homosexual - an allegation fed by the fact that he has lived for many years in Weybridge, Surrey, with his friend and manager Bill Latham, a former RE teacher. Bill, says Steve Turner, provides Cliff "with the emotional succour most men get from marriage". But then Bill's girlfriend, Jill, lives there too.

All of which, in this sex-mad age, is deemed to be rather strange and said to reveal that the man has something to hide. But not for Cliff the androgynous zone of ambiguous sexuality occupied by post-modernists such as Michael Jackson and Madonna whose sexuality self-consciously wavers across some genderless no-person's-land. Cliff is happy to prefer tennis to sex in real life and then offer ersatz sex on stage.

He sees no contradiction. For his Heathcliff the Brute he is not only putting on weight, he is perfecting moody and unshaven designer stubble. Not very Cliff, one interviewer suggested to him. "It's called Acting," the great man responded archly.

Some would say it's what he's been doing all his life. Others will just see Cliff in a Cloak and be happy to enjoy it.

Spot the difference: Cliff then (left) and now (right)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Voices
voicesBryony Beynon: This is something every woman can relate to
Arts and Entertainment
film

News
Mock the tweet: Ukip leader Nigel Farage and comedian Frankie Boyle
peopleIt was a polite exchange of words, as you can imagine
Arts and Entertainment
Steven, Ella Jade and Sarah in the boardroom
tv
Life and Style
fashion
Life and Style
Britons buy more than 30 million handsets each year, keeping them for an average of 18 months
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is reported to be in final negotiations to play Doctor Strange for Marvel although the casting has not yet been confirmed
film
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Alloysious Massaquoi, 'G' Hastings and Kayus Bankole of Young Fathers are the surprise winners of this year's Mercury Music Prize
musicThe surprise winners of the Mercury Prize – and a very brief acceptance speech
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Life and Style
fashion

World Beard and Moustache Championships held last week

News
video
Arts and Entertainment
Copycat culture: the Chateau Zhang Laffitte in China, top, and the building which inspired it, in Paris, bottom
architectureReplicas of Western landmarks are springing up in unlikely places
Sport
Rolando Aarons watches as his effort finds the corner of the Manchester City goal to give Newcastle the lead
footballManchester City 0 Newcastle 2: Holders crash out on home turf
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: English Teacher - Saffron ...

Primary Supply Teacher - Northants

£90 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Primary School Supply Teache...

Maths Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Maths Teacher - Saffro...

Chemistry Teacher - Top School in Malaysia - January Start

£18000 - £20400 per annum + Accommodation, Flights, Medical Cover: Randstad Ed...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain