Cathy loves Heath-Cliff. Crikey]

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PURE bracing ventilation they had here at all times. It was appropriate. The cold air outside the Old Vic came close to wuthering the voices of the long queue of young women waiting to audition for the part of Catherine Earnshaw. The first quality of Emily Bronte's wild heroine had been tested: she must be able to stand the chill.

The list of attributes demanded by the Cliff Richard Organisation of she who is to play Cathy in their forthcoming musical Heathcliff is gruelling and long. She must be beautiful, slender and have a strong rock voice. She must be able to look 18 or 30. She must be peculiar. 'She was a crazy, jealous, cruel lady in some respects,' said Roger Bruce, casting director for the Cliff Richard Organisation at this week's audition. 'If someone comes along and presents all that to us this morning, they've got the job.'

This Cathy must, naturally, possess all the acting ability required to convey the idea that she sees Cliff Richard as a raging sexual beast in human flesh. No doubt she also has to be smaller than Cliff (5ft 10in), with a higher voice.

About 120 women had turned up at the Old Vic - redheads, dark, small, tall, dumpling and willowy - to submit themselves to scrutiny. It seemed tough that there were such high expectations of them, when the part of the saturnine, scowling, swearing hero had been awarded to a 53-year-old with a boyish face who is famous for his chastity.

In giving himself this part, Cliff has committed what is probably the first gross perversion of his life. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but it will require a suspension of sanity to accept the singer of 'Congratulations' as a man who strangles his fiancee's spaniel. There are parts in Wuthering Heights that Mr Richard could play. Edgar Linton, for example, Cathy's kind, handsome, rich and irredeemably wet husband. But not - never - Emily Bronte's incarnate hobgoblin.

'Well, it gives Cathy a free rein, doesn't it?' said Vikki Turney, 27, from east London, looking on the bright side as she waited in the cold. She had, she said, been singing with the Farm and the Pelican Retorts for four years. This was worth a go.

Ms Turney had the hair and the face, but did she have the high spirits? Endurance and self-discipline are more necessary in her profession than recklessness and impatience. There are so many more talented young women than there is work that it is easy, for example, for coming musicals to attract publicity by getting them to queue round the block. Catherine Earnshaw would not have borne such humiliation.

Attracted either by the cameras or the queue, a small Scotsman with a pink flower in his hat was offering to those who caught his eye either abuse or a swig from his can of Kestrel.

A knife scar ran from one side of his mouth to his ear. Here, now, was a natural Heathcliff. Was he familiar with Wuthering Heights? 'I read that when I was knee-high,' he said. This is more than some members of the Cliff Richard Organisation appear to have done. This week on the radio one of them said that Cathy Earnshaw, though normally played with dark hair, was, in the book, blonde. Perhaps they should read past chapter two.

Claire Cornish, 23, from Guildford, with auburn hair, had been in a band at City University. 'The more you have to wait, the more your stomach turns over,' she said, and of Heath-Cliff: 'He's paying for it - he can be whatever part he wants. That's probably why he is paying for it.'

This is true. Mr Richard is putting up pounds 5m to realise his ambition, and has persuaded Tim Rice to write the lyrics. A man as rich as he can put himself in any part, however unlikely - Cliff Lear, MacCliff, the HunchCliff of Notre-Dame . . . .

Inside the theatre, small, lonely figures stalked, one by one, on to the empty stage and opened their mouths into the darkness. 'They shake visibly,' said Gill Zwanenberg, the stage manager. 'There was a girl earlier with a long jumper and the whole jumper front was trembling.'

Mr Bruce, out there among the seats with an Anglepoise and a notebook, was being very kind. A young man beside him encouragingly nodded his head in time, even to those few who were out of tune. 'Don't worry]' he said as a young woman lost her words midway. 'Thank you very much for coming]'

She came off into the wings. 'That was awful,' she said, 'absolutely awful.' Sue Kennett, a professional singer from south London, was waiting sixth in line to go on. What did she think of Cliff as Heathcliff? 'I think that's a bit of an unfair question,' she said. 'The reason most people are here is because they haven't a job.'

The employment generated by Heathcliff the musical will be welcome. It is one of the few points in favour of an idea that may yet see Emily Bronte rise, unquiet, from her grave. Curses upon the production may, of course, be superfluous. The Prime Minister has already sent his congratulations.

But Heath-Cliff's employees remain loyal. 'A lot of people are out to knock him, but I think they'll say, 'Crikey] We've got it wrong, and Cliff's got it right',' said Roger Bruce, for all the world as though 'Crikey]' is an expression in use outside Cliff Richard's wacky world.

We will soon see for ourselves. For the moment, the world's most boyish 53-year-old is practising his sneer. On 8 November, in Birmingham, Heath-Cliff will reveal his demonic side and break out in song: 'Oh Cathy, why did you die? Oh, crumbs]' I can hardly wait.

(Photograph omitted)