Cliff Richard will be starring in Heathcliff this autumn, a pounds 5m musical extravaganza that will tour the nation's biggest arenas, from Wembley to the Aberdeen Conference Centre. Yes, that Heathcliff. Based on Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. Yes, that Cliff Richard. Bachelor Boy himself. No, don't snigger. Don't display your prejudice, or your ignorance. Cliff has had to put up with more than enough of that, these past few decades.
Why shouldn't he? He's done a lot of acting, after all. And he's always been brave, standing up to be counted, even at the risk of ridicule. And yet, it's just, well, hard to imagine lovely Cliff turning himself into horrible Heathcliff.
But let's see how the man himself is getting on, down at his beautiful house in Weybridge, Surrey. That was an honour in itself, being allowed in, so his manager and friend Bill Latham said. The telly has been inside, but that's different. It can be controlled. Let a journalist in and goodness knows what he might write.
Exquisite lawns, lots of hanging baskets, hard tennis court, nice pool. Inside, the carpets are deep, the furnishings lush, all surfaces sparkling. I waited in his main living room, noticing a signed photo of the Duchess of York, some paintings of women tennis stars and cricketers, several rather chocolate-boxy paintings of children, some on horses, some with flowers.
Cliff bounded in, a young boy himself, bringing a tray of decaffeinated coffee. He then let out what can only be described as a muffled oath. No hint of swear word. The worst expletive during our chat was 'crumbs'. But he was clearly upset by what he saw. On the glass-topped table, where he was about to place the tray, was a spot of what looked like cleaning liquid. Oh gosh. Someone would be for it.
He was wearing a very clean T-shirt that said 'I Am Right On', a gift from a German fan, which he just happened to pull on, he said. Blue jeans, very clean, white trainers, not quite so clean. He speaks very quickly, coherently, passionately, radiating physical energy, which is a surprise. Not the slightest trace of campery, despite a lifetime in show business. In the flesh, yes, he looks incredibly young for 53, but he also looks strong, manly, muscular. Yup, Cliff is building up his body for the part of Heathcliff. Look out, you guys. And dolls.
'I aim to put on a stone by the time we open. I know I can wear padding, but I'd like to do it physically, changing myself for the part. I'm doing weight training in a gym, three days a week for two hours. I've always been fit, but now I think I'm very fit. Over 50, so they say, you shouldn't push your pulse rate above 150. I can push mine safely to 190. I think my body can take it.'
The normal person of 53, needing to put on a stone, might do something silly but enjoyable, such as doubling the chips and beer, but dear Cliff, being a pro, would never do that. He has been on a diet since about 1961, when Minnie Caldwell on Coronation Street referred to 'that chubby Cliff Richard'. He had been prone to chubbiness as a boy, and at 21 he was 12 1/2 stone. Since then, he has lived on one meal a day and has never risen above 11 stone. Pretty slender for someone 5ft 10in.
Now he's eating lunch, but only three times a week, and then pretty carefully, things such as salads. He's not a veggie, eating meat in moderation, nor teetotal. He has a glass or two with his meal most evenings. He's been drunk three times in his life, but a long time ago. 'I didn't like the feeling of being inebriated. I didn't like not being in control.'
The object of his new regime is to put on muscle, not fat. 'When I rang my trainer he said: 'We're not talking Chippendales here, are we? Because that would take three years.' 'No,' I said, 'I just want to be a stone stronger'.'
Cliff as a Chippendale? Anyway, that's enough about his weight. Let's move on to his art. What's the motivation, Cliff? (Everyone calls him Cliff, even his own mother, who christened him Harry. If fans try to get into his dressing room, saying they're his sister or mum, the doorman asks who they want to see and if they say Harry, he knows they're frauds.)
'I've loved Wuthering Heights since I read it at school. And loved Olivier in the film. He looked big and strong, which I think Heathcliff should be. Yes, he might have been weedy, you never know. Brutes often are. Dennis Nilsen, who chopped up all those gay kids, looked inoffensive.
'I have to look the part because it's going to be hard for people to suspend disbelief. Ever since it came out that I was going to do it, the media have been very negative. It will be hard for people to accept me as Heathcliff, I know that, after 36 years with my image, living the life I've lived. But why should I play angelic parts all the time? Acting is acting. You don't need to have killed someone in real life to know how to knife them on stage. I've had negative comments in the press all my life, and it hasn't made me give up. So tough luck to them. I'm going to do it.'
He has put up the pounds 5m himself, so there are no backers to worry about, and on the day bookings opened, ticket sales were pounds 2.5m. Frank Dunlop directs, John Farrar has done the music and Tim Rice the lyrics. 'Financially, there should be no danger. I know I have 430,000 fans out there - well, that's how many saw my last tour. But it is dangerous artistically. I am leaving myself open to ridicule. But it's what I've always wanted. I never fancied Hamlet or Romeo. Frankly, I can't understand Shakespeare. I'd need lessons for the dialogue. But Heathcliff is more modern. He has a dark side we can all relate to.'
Cliff has been up to Yorkshire, looked round Haworth and the Moors, and says the Bronte people have been very helpful, opening the museum up early, so that he could look round in peace. His version of the story will start at the end, with Heathcliff at Cathy's grave, then flash back to his life. After long deliberations, Cliff thinks he'll wear a wig.
'Often when I'm singing, my hair looks great one night, then next night, I can't get it right. One bit flaps and distracts me. I don't want that to happen when I'm playing Heathcliff.'
Do you think Heathcliff would have fussed over his hair? 'That's the point. I am being Heathcliff, not Cliff Richard, so a wig will help. Probably grow some designer stubble as well.' But if you start at the end, hasn't Heathcliff been away for three years, and probably returned looking pretty smart? 'True, but I think he'd still have a bit of stubble. They didn't have a lot of hot water in those days.'
So, things are going quite well with the macho look, what with the pecs and the stubble, but what about the inner man? How can a nice person like Cliff persuade us he's a nasty bit of work? 'I won't be smiling. In fact, I'll probably be scowling most of the show. I do have violence in me, you know. I have been on the point a few times of smashing a journalist in the face.' What on earth for? 'It's when young journalists, half my age, start asking about my sex life. I don't ask other people about their sex lives. You'd think at the age of 53, after all these successful years, I would get a bit of respect. Thirty- six years I've been in show business, and the media are still so negative about me. I work hard at everything I do, but I'm still vulnerable. Before a first night, I still almost puke in my dressing room. I need encouragement, like most people.
'I answer honestly when asked questions, yet the things I've had to put up with have been really hurtful. Someone said that I looked like 'an iced bun with a cherry on top'. That upset me.
'Teasing is fine, I can take that. It's when they speculate, it's really upsetting. Imagine how my mother feels when people write that I must be gay. How dare they? It's all so vulgar and unnecessary.'
Perhaps you have been too honest. Some men take it as a criticism of themselves when they hear of a mature, healthy man of 53 who has managed happily without sexual relations for 33 years. It was back in 1960 it happened, with the wife of one of the Shadows. Surely, by the way, that counts as adultery? 'I sinned. I admit it. But I have put it right in my life since. My heart bleeds for her that it still gets mentioned. It was something we did as teenagers, and it's still being trivialised.'
Society has changed since 1960. It is now commonplace for people to live and sleep together before marriage. Do you approve? 'I would never be judgemental about other people's morals. If, of course, the couple happened to be Christian, and asked my opinion, I would say no, and point them to the Bible.'
Do you have sexual desires? 'I'm not telling you. Any answer I gave would be futile, or treated as loaded. I see no reason why I should justify anything. I'll just have to be seen as a goody two shoes.
'It is interesting that I have stuck by my beliefs all these years, and never been on things like drugs, yet when some pop star admits he has been on drugs, then comes off them, he gets praised for his efforts. I'm not saying I want praise for never having fallen. I'm just saying it is interesting. It's a reflection on our society. The goodies get seen as baddies.'
Despite the lack of a sexual relationship - though he had a loving one with Sue Barker - he has always half-believed that, one day, he might still get married, that someone might yet come along. Now, he feels a bridge has been crossed.
'I now think I don't want to be married. That doesn't say it will never happen. Just that I don't think it will. In my teens, I did think I'd get married. The Shadows got married one by one, and I thought, my turn will be next. I don't think I can commit myself to another person. But I am happy. I do feel fulfilled. I like sleeping alone in my big double bed.'
His house is shared with two other people. There's his friend Bill, once an R E teacher, and Bill's friend, Jill. They did appear to be an item at one time, and some people expected marriage, but nothing happened. 'I don't inquire. It's their affair.' Meanwhile, they each have their own bedrooms, meeting up for meals or telly. Jill does most of the cooking, though Cliff can do a bit. It's one of their running jokes that Bill is hopeless in the kitchen. Is there a father- or mother-figure, someone in charge? 'No. I'd say we live like brothers and sisters. We're people of like mind and character. We love each other.' What about rows? In any threesome, two often gang up against one? 'No, we all live very happily.'
Cliff always said he would not marry someone younger, so should by some remote chance anyone come along, she is likely to be too old to have children. 'It doesn't sadden me. It's egotistical to have children just to keep your bloodline going.' He has, of course, saved himself a lot of expense and aggravation. No messy divorces. No sex scandals. He's been able to concentrate on his career - and, of course, doing good works as a Christian. But hasn't he turned into an obsessive?
'I've always considered myself normal. I had a happy childhood. I come from a normal family. I'm not an intellectual, but I like to think I have a normal, balanced view on life.'
Doing without lunch for 33 years, that's not quite normal. You are obsessive in your work, but you also appear obsessed by your image. Your main motivation in wanting to play Heathcliff is to alter your image, make people think differently about you.
'If I am obsessive, well, perhaps it will help me in the part. After all, Heathcliff was an obsessive . . .'
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