Cilla Black: Match Maker of the Day

It was a game of two halves, but there could be only one winner. Ousted from Saturday nights by Premiership football, Cilla Black has staged an amazing comeback. On the eve of her return, ITV's 'goddess of love' explains how she did it by Brian Viner

Friday 09 November 2001 01:00

Tomorrow, world order will be restored, so we have been led to believe, with ITV's reinstatement of Blind Date at 7pm, and the shunting of the channel's beleaguered football highlights programme, The Premiership, to 10.30pm. ITV, having unveiled The Premiership as the jewel in its Saturday night crown, has tried to cover its embarrassment with aggressively kitsch trailers for Blind Date, billing its presenter, Cilla Black, as "the goddess of love, the duchess of dating".

Moreover, in last week's valedictory early-evening edition of The Premiership, the presenter Des Lynam gamely introduced his pundits in the style of Blind Date. It was a characteristically breezy riposte to what has been gleefully written up by the tabloids as a "humiliation" engineered by Cilla herself, who reportedly threatened to quit if The Premiership was not substituted by Blind Date.

The only way to get to the bottom of this byzantine intrigue is to ask the goddess of love, the duchess of dating, straight. But first: Cilla, have you ever watched The Premiership? "Has anyone?" she replies, the glint of mischief in her eye.

Like the old trouper she is, Cilla is plainly enjoying the spotlight's glare. I ask how she contributed to tomorrow's seismic scheduling changes? "Well, I didn't threaten to quit," she says. "I'm not a threatening person, and anyway, I'm in no position to quit because I'm under contract.

"The thing was, they had a problem with the football. With great respect to all blind people, a blind person could see that. I know Des. I know he's not lost his talent. I think the football will sit very well in the time it's been allocated. But women rule on Saturday nights. They've had the kids all day, done the shopping, and at seven they don't want to watch football – even those like me, who love it. Every time I went to the shops, the public told me they wanted Blind Date back.

"So I didn't threaten to quit, and Blind Date was coming back anyway in January, but I did phone Charles Allen [executive chairman of Granada, owner of LWT, which makes Blind Date]. When [Lily] Savage asked me on television when it was coming back, the audience went mental. After that I felt I had to give Charles a call. But I wouldn't have done that if the football had been a resounding success. I don't knock success. I love people to be successful because I am myself."

Sure enough, the trappings of success are all around her. I am being given an exclusive audience, prior to the press launch of Blind Date, in the penthouse suite of London's Dorchester Hotel. Designed by Oliver Messel in his gold cherub period, the suite is suitably kitsch for the goddess of love.

She is wearing a swirly purple top and tight leather trousers, an outfit made possible by the dramatic weight loss initiated by the death two years ago of her husband and manager Bobby Willis. She is down from a size 14 to a size eight, and although she is still assailed by periodic bouts of grief – "I'm still not speaking to God" – she is partying like the proverbial merry widow with her friends, among the closest of whom are Lily Savage, Dale Winton and Christopher Biggins.

Her manager now is the eldest of her three sons, 31-year-old Robert. An earnest character with dramatically slicked-back hair, he rather disconcertingly sits in on our interview, interrupting whenever he thinks I have not taken on board the message that his mum is the Aphrodite of light entertainment and Blind Date its Acropolis.

Still, I love Cilla, so I don't mind. I tell her I also come from Merseyside, and it transpires that I was brought up round the corner from her Auntie Nellie, who was "the only one who could plait my hur".

Cilla, as we know, suffers from inimitable vowel syndrome. Sometimes, though, she has been accused of faking it. Certain Liverpudlians, among them the actor Ricky Tomlinson, have charged her with betraying her roots. Does this upset her?

"No, because whatever anybody says, I'm a Scouser and proud of it. He [Tomlinson] still lives in Liverpool, albeit in the posh waterfront area. But it won't make me any more Liverpool, to go to a pub like he does, with a banjo, and drink pints of stout." And the accent? "It probably comes out more pronounced on the telly, but that's nerves. I once recorded a Beatles song, 'Here, Thur and Everywhur' and it hurt, it really physically hurt, to sing 'Here, There, and Everywhere'."

Anyway, back to Auntie Nellie, her mother's sister, who is 90-odd and used to be a waitress at Royal Birkdale Golf Club in Southport. "Whenever she saw a celebrity golfer thur, she used to go up to him and say 'I'm Cilla's auntie... and I'm a widow'." I laugh, and relate a story told to me, in a rare burst of bonhomie, by John Birt. His grandmother once got into conversation on a Southport bus with a woman who, as she was getting off, produced her business card, on which was printed 'Tom O'Connor's mother'. Cilla is delighted. I think we have bonded. But I try not to get too excited. Cilla, after all, is in the bonding business.

At 58, she is approaching the 40th year of her showbiz career, and Robert quite literally intends to make a song and dance about it. Unlike, say, Charlotte Church, Cilla has never written an autobiography. "I haven't lived long enough yet," she says. But if ever she does, it will be a meaty volume.

She grew up, as Priscilla White, in a good Catholic home on Liverpool's working-class Scotland Road, her gift for a tune matched by a gift for showing off. According to Merseybeat lore, she was a cloakroom attendant at the Cavern Club who was talent-spotted by the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein.

"Yeah, I was a cloakroom attendant, but only in my lunch hour," she says. "I'd earn five shillings and my lunch, a bread roll and Heinz tomato soup laced with the smell of disinfectant. I can smell it now. And there were little mounds of powder all over the place, which John Lennon told me later was rat poison."

I invite her to comment on recent suggestions that Lennon may have had a gay relationship with Stu Sutcliffe, briefly the Beatles' bassist. "It's easy to talk about dead people," she says. "John was very shy of women. That's why he was aggressive and very raucous. He was very much a man's man. But homosexual? I don't think so."

She first auditioned for Epstein, with the Beatles, at the Majestic Ballroom in Birkenhead. "I did a Sam Cook version of 'Summertime', the Porgy and Bess thing, but I did it in thur key, not mine. Brian wasn't impressed. I was signed nearly a year later. I was singing jazz in the Blue Angel and I didn't know Brian was in. He liked me, singing in my own key."

Epstein got her on the bill with Tommy Cooper and Frankie Vaughan at the London Palladium. "I said, 'Oh God, why couldn't you have got me the Liverpool Empire?' But if I hadn't done that I wouldn't have left Liverpool and I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today. I learnt my craft thur, watching Frankie Vaughan. Nobody takes a call like I do. I defy you not to give me a standing ovation. I learnt so much. When I did The Ed Sullivan Show with the Beatles, I sat in the stalls during the dress run, with Debbie Reynolds and Kirk Douglas, watching Ed Sullivan talking to this comedienne called Toti Fields. He was speaking and she was mouthing 'Thank you, thank you', and I was a bit put out, wondering why she was getting special praise, but when we came to do the show, she wasn't thur.

"Later, when I was on at the Prince of Wales with Frankie Howerd, Toti Fields came to see me backstage. I said, 'What happened to you that night?' She said, 'Oh, he was turring a strip off me'. I said, 'It didn't look that way.' And she said, 'I know.' That was something I learnt from her. He was saying, 'You were totally rubbish. You are only in the dress run because my wife thinks you're good. I think you're the pits.' And none of us knew. I've never forgotten that, although – touch wood – I've never had to use it."

Epstein's death in 1967 shattered her, as it did the Beatles. "I know it wasn't suicide. He was always threatening to, phoning me up saying 'You won't see me tomorrow.' But he definitely didn't do it. It was that concoction of drugs and drink. They know now you choke on your own vomit."

It is rather startling to hear the duchess of dating talking of vomit. Admirably, she came through the Sixties untainted by drink and drugs. "I did try pot once," she admits. "But I just thought it was terribly unhygenic, passing these spliffs round. I never had a glass of wine until I was 21. Muriel Young took us to dinner at the Pickwick Club. I had Mateus Rosé and fish pie. I still love Mateus Rosé."

And I still love Cilla, living contradiction of the old adage that if you remember the Sixties, you weren't thur.

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