Often when we feel oddly upset about the death of a celebrity we’ve never met, it takes days to pinpoint the roots of the sadness. I’m getting closer now. It’s not that I thought Cilla – no second name required, like Cher, Elvis or Madonna – would live forever, but in her 70s, her aura as a showbiz force of nature was still strong. I was hoping she’d give immortality a good go.
As she lived mainly out of the spotlight, I wasn’t completely sure what Cilla was up to, but I liked to imagine it involved immaculate, sequined, tailored jackets, expensive hair-colouring sessions, long Caribbean holidays with Paul O’Grady, a lot of Krug, and a quiet satisfaction over her life well lived. Plus, I imagined, the odd frustrating meeting with media bods tempting her to front one of those wretched YouTube channels.
Cilla hadn’t retired from showbusiness, I thought; it was just that nowadays she was a bit above it. While Cilla’s Blind Date in the 1980s tickled LWT audiences with weak innuendo, Paddy McGuinness’s Take Me Out is the distilled ambience of 4am at Tokio Joe’s in Magaluf.
Of course, sadness over Cilla having left us comes heavily scented with pining for a bygone age of telly when we were all younger, less stimulated and much more easily pleased. “Hello number twooo! What’s yer name and where d’yer come from?” Cilla would gasp on Blind Date through the shonky cardboard wall.
It was Saturday night, it was 1988, it was an era before X Factor ruined everything. It was a time when “eating out” was confined to a Brown Derby at Wimpy once a year on your birthday. No, you’re not going anywhere, you’re in watching Cilla.
Each household owned one telly and requisite viewing was her dating show where a wacky scuba instructor from Hull dressed like Liberace might ask three bashful ladies: “If you lived in the jungle which animal would you be and why?” If any guest gave a lewd answer involving a banana, Cilla would blush, look to the audience to indicate she knew exactly what the joke was – she once did the cloakroom at The Cavern Club; she’d heard dirtier jokes than this – then she’d pull them all back into line. And when Blind Date couples admitted to a little kiss, Cilla would get very excited and say, “So, will I be needing to buy a new ’aat?!”
We – the audience at home – loved Cilla talking about her wedding hat, because it was exactly the type of thing your formidable aunty would say. And that, in a sense, was Cilla Black: the nation’s witty, no-nonsense glam aunt.
Cilla Black: Career in pictures
Cilla Black: Career in pictures
Black used to perform at Liverpool music venue The Cavern in the early 1960s. The Beatles also performed there (John Pratt/Keystone Features/Getty Image)
John Pratt/Keystone Features/Getty Image
Performing at Sunday Night at the London Palladium in 1965 (Rex Features)
Black starred alongside David Warner in 'Love is a Four Letter Word' in 1968 (Rex Features)
With Burt Bacharach on the Burt Bacharach Show in 1972 (Rex Features)
Black performing on the 'The Cilla Black Show' (Rex Features)
Black hosted Surprise Surprise from 1984 to 2001 (Rex Features)
She hosted dating show Blind Date from 1985 to 2003 (Rex Features)
She took to the stage with Lily Savage and Barbara Windsor at the Royal Variety Performance in 2001 (Rex Features)
She released her book, 'What's it all about?' in 2003 (ShowBizIreland.com/Getty Images)
She walked the runway at the Fashion for Relief show at London Fashion Week in 2008 (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
She attended the Arqiva British Academy Television Awards at Theatre Royal in May last year (Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)
Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images
“Suuuuurprise, surpriiiiise!” Cilla would sing each Sunday night as we snivelled into Kleenex. “The unexpected hits you between the eeeeyes!” Yes, the lyrics deserved our tears, but what moved us was the show’s never-ending conveyor belt of schmaltz, stories of woe and family re-unification. Cilla’s Surprise Surprise sofa overflowed with sad folks made suddenly happy by a scouse fairy godmother. Lost relatives appeared from Australia. War babies left at orphanages finally found their mummies. It’s just not the same in the era of Skype and cheap air travel and Facebook genealogy hunts: anyone can find somebody; losing someone these days is an actual art-form. But back then, Cilla was performing actual magic on that couch, blathering into a phone with a coiled cord.
“Hello, it’s Cilla here,” she’d purr, and the recipient down the line would almost faint.
In recent years, there has been a move to deify Cilla as a staggering musical talent – cue a three-part Sheridan Smith drama – but I’m not entirely convinced this is the truth. Cilla wasn’t a waspish siren like Shirley Bassey, nor did she have the soulful, heartbreaking manner of Dusty Springfield. In fact, sometimes Cilla’s singing was little short of alarming – but what she did have was the ability to belt out a tune shamelessly while oozing likeability.
In other hands “Anyone Who Had A Heart” sounds like an over-the-top torch song. Cilla makes it sound daintily thoughtful, like the girl next door putting the washing out, dealing inwardly with a smashed heart. Her version of “Alfie” rings with the correct level of barely contained ire. Rather than smitten, she sounds utterly pig sick of the stupid man.
But Cilla had more to offer than being a pop star, which is why, by 1975, a series of comedy plays, Cilla’s Comedy Six, led the Writers' Guild to name her Britain’s Top Female Comedy Star. And this is how I think of her, striding about with a fairy wand as a panto godmother in Cinderella or performing “You Gotta Get A Gimmick” with Lily Savage, wearing illuminating tits and a leotard.
Cilla on Blankety Blank. Or Loose Women, or Room 101, or The Morecambe and Wise Show. Cilla in a pencil skirt, a silk blouse, diamonds and heels, adding old-school showbiz sparkle wherever she went.
Saturday nights never have to be boring any more – today’s world is our oyster – but there’ll always be a part of me that misses Cilla, her guests and a little re-cap from “Our Graham”.Reuse content