BOOK REVIEW / Golly gosh] In the limelight with shadows: 'Cliff Richard' - Steve Turner: Lion, 16.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
LET'S GET one thing straight from the off. There has been a lot of conjecture about one aspect of Cliff Richard's life over the years. But now, thanks to Steve Turner's diligent, lengthy and thorough biography, the record can be put right: that boat aboard which Richard's family emigrated to Britain from India in 1948 was not called - 'as all other books have mistakenly identified it' - The Ranghi. It was The Ranchi. Phew, thanks for telling us.

That's the thing about Cliff Richard: for a 52-year-old, ageing juvenile, he exercises a disproportionate fascination on the national psyche. Much of it, admittedly, is of a prurient nature (there is no entry under 'colostomy' in the index, by the way), but nevertheless, after 35 years teetering at or near the top, he remains the most curious figure in British popular music.

Cliff is a man whose company turned over pounds 8m in 1991, yet who draws only pounds 40 a week pocket money. A man who is old enough to be a grandfather, yet still retains the Gosh-and-blimey vocabulary of an Enid Blyton teenager. A man who, for the past 25 years, has been a figure of fun, a sort of Mary Whitehouse of rock, yet who still fills auditoria, sells records by the bus- load, and retains fans so devoted they would cheerfully lynch any critic who suggests their idol should have called it a day after 'Move It'.

In his attempt to build an Identikit of this oddity, Turner has gone well beyond the call of duty. He went back, for instance, to Cliff's forebears in India and discovered that the Bachelor Boy's grandfather had not gone missing in action on the Afghan front during the Thirties, as the family had believed. He had, in fact, legged it to Pakistan to set up a bigamous second family.

'William Edward Dazely died of coronary thrombosis in 1969, never knowing that Cliff Richard was his grandson,' writes Turner, which might seem to some a stroke of luck. 'When, during the writing of this book, his family found out, the news came as a great shock to them.' Digging into Cliff's own life, however, has not unearthed dirt of this or, indeed, any other calibre. 'I never found any fault in that child,' Cliff's mum tells Turner. 'He never lied to me, he never hurt anybody; he still doesn't'

And then there is his old chum from his schooldays in Fifties Buckinghamshire (when he was known as Harry Webb and was joshed for his funny colonial accent), who remembers: 'During the conker season we would run down the road throwing conkers at people's front doors. I can remember Harry was absolutely over the moon when he hit a doorbell and made it ring.' Goshblimey] The James Dean of Cheshunt.

But although Kitty Kelly and Albert Goldman combined would be pushed to cook up anything spicy from the ingredients assembled here, Turner's account is full of the entertaining and the bizarre. There is the moment, for example, when Cliff received a bollocking from his strict, Anglo-Indian parents for having a sexual relationship before marriage. He was, at the time, in his twenties, the biggest star in Britain, able to command 400 times the average weekly wage for one television appearance, yet so traumatised was he by his parents' disapproval that he ended the affair immediately.

And despite finding little that is damning, Turner could not be accused of hagiography. We are told that Cliff is single-minded (he has regularly parted company with collaborators with unexpected ruthlessness), right-wing (he played Sun City in the Eighties without apology) and almost comically obsessed by his position in the pop charts.

Then there is sex, and the one question we all want answered about Cliff. The relationship that so upset his folks (he had intercourse twice with the wife of one of the Shadows) was Cliff's only active experience. Of any sort. That fellow who has been his constant companion for 25 years? It turns out he is, well, his companion. Turner reckons his subject is asexual rather than homosexual; a theory anyone who has seen Cliff dance would have no difficulty endorsing.

Across 370 pages of girlfriends never before discovered, of financial arrangements never before revealed (Cliff gets his weekly wad in an envelope, on a Thursday), of meticulous, train-spotter details, Steve Turner has done his best. But his conclusion is that perhaps Cliff really is the hard-working, pleasant and decent fellow he likes us to believe. A bit like this book, really.