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Cilla Black: Surprise, surprise!

She dominated the hit parade in the Sixties and went on to become the queen of Saturday night TV. What could possibly tempt Cilla Black back into the spotlight?

Deborah Ross
Saturday 04 December 2010 01:00 GMT

Among Cilla Black's many homes both here and abroad – my dears, she practically owns the world – there is her flat near St James's Park in London, which is where we meet. So it's up in the lift which, get this, opens directly into the apartment. Fancy! I step inside (love) and, as our Graham would have said: "Here she is. Our host. The one. The only. Cillaaaaaaaaa Blaaaaaaaaaaack!"

And here she is, indeed, looking every bit as Cilla-ish as I'd hoped: the Elnett hair-do; dazzling diamond ring and earrings; the nicely full cheeks giving the impression she's storing something tasty in them for later (seeds, maybe); the mini-skirt and terrific, hoofer's legs. "Yes," she says, "the lallies have been good to me." Then, just as I'm thinking things couldn't get any better, she asks if I would care to join her in a glass of champagne. I say I most certainly would (no Surprise, Surprise there, I think you will find). She is in her stockinged feet so pads to the kitchen to pour a couple of glasses and then pads back. When she returns she says she is a bit bushed, as it happens. She's just come from doing a spot on The Alan Titchmarsh Show, and tomorrow she'll be filming Paul O'Grady's Christmas Special, with Bette Midler.

Talking with Cilla is like being in a Hello! spin wash, with some of the copies dating from way back. She used to cut Ringo Starr's mother's hair, she says at one point. George Harrison introduced her to avocados. "He told me you can have them with vinaigrette or Marie Rose sauce or prawns." As a couple, she and her late husband, Bobby "went on holiday with the Tarbucks and spent new year with the Parkinsons and Henry Cooper and his dear wife." She won't have Botox because "Cliff had it and he said his eyebrows dropped". Cliff, she adds, makes the best roast potatoes. Do I want to know his secret? I do, I say. (No Surprise, Surprise there, either; I have always longed to know all Cliff's secrets.) "Saffron," she says. I must look unconvinced because she then adds: "His potatoes are a great colour." I love Cilla. She is untouched by irony. I think she should be treasured, worshipped and have her feet rubbed at least four times on a weekday, and six at the weekend.

The flat is expensively cosy; like Claridge's on a smaller scale. The light fittings are chandelier-style. The soft furnishings are plumptious. There's a Salvador Dali sketch over the mantelpiece ("I knew his girlfriend, Amanda. I still do"). She is 67, and still talks like she's swallowed half the Mersey and it's gurgling in her throat. "Book" is "bewk" and "cook" is "cewk" and, most satisfyingly, cook book is "cewk bewk". She is fond of food programmes on television and "the Barefoot Contessa's new cewk book is top of my Christmas list," she says. I look at her bewkshelves and see they are full of antiquarian bewks with titles like The Story of Art and The British Empire. Cilla, I say, I had no idea you were into such heavy reading. She says she isn't. "My interior designer got them for me." She does not pretend to be anything she is not. If she ever went to a psychiatrist, they'd probably have to play cards, just to kill time. I ask if she's ever done drugs, at least. She says she once tried a joint "but it made me sick and it made me swear". And you never swear? "No." OK, you reach into the fridge for the milk, it slips out of your hand and ends up on the floor. What is the worst you would say? "Oh, shoot." Seriously? "Yes." She should be worshiped and treasured, like I said.

She has other homes in Spain, Barbados, and Denham, Buckinghamshire, where she lives on a 17-acre estate, but this is her bolt-hole. It used to be her office, she says, when she worked for LWT and "when Cilla Black was a going concern". She was going to get rid of it when Bobby died (in 1999), "but I was coming up to town so much, with friends like Biggins (Christopher) and Dale (Winton) and Paul (O'Grady) always offering to take me out and get me out of myself, which I was very grateful for." I think history will refer to this period in Cilla's life as The Leather-Trousered Partying Years, but she seems to have moved on from that now. We sit on the fat, beige sofa which, I note, is dented at one end. How so? She says it's where she always sits and she's worn a hollow. I say I don't like to think of you, Cilla, alone in the evenings, wearing a hollow into your sofa. It can't be a lot of, lot of laughs, as we say in London, but you might say differently. She says she likes her own company. She says: "I like being in charge of the remote control." Have you dated? "I could write a bewk about it!" she exclaims. Excruciating?, I ask. No, boring, she says. One night a man picked her up from here at 9pm, and she was back by 10pm. "We went to Annabel's. I had one glass of champagne. He asked if I'd like another and I said: 'No thanks. I'd like to go home.' This was unusual for me. I'm usually Mrs Nicey. But I was bored to tears." A hollow never lets you down, I say. "It's true, that!" she says.

Cilla was the biggest-selling UK female artist of the Sixties – at one point, she was shifting 100,000 records a day – and she then moved seamlessly to television and two of the biggest shows of the Eighties and Nineties: Surprise, Surprise and Blind Date. She says she does not mind not being on TV anymore; does not look at Bruce Forsyth on Strictly and think: I could do that. "I did Blind Date until I was 60. I can't complain", she says. I try to engage her in a discussion on ageism in television. Is it fair that men are allowed to carry on so much longer than women? "The fact is," she says, "I'd prefer to look (lewk) at a younger woman." OK, I say, but you wouldn't find a Bruce/Tess presenting team in which the genders were reversed, would you? "Why not?," she asks. Why not, indeed, but you don't. She sighs and then goes on about weather girls in a rather strange and incoherent way. She may not be a thinker. I quickly change tack, shift to safer ground the safest, some would say – and ask her about the panto she is doing this year. She is doing Cinderella at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre, playing the fairy godmother. It is her first panto for 22 years and she accepted this, she says, because Aylesbury Theatre is the closest theatre to her Denham home, it's new, and she'd have felt rotten saying no. I say I'd heard that once, when she was in panto and asked the audience how she should kill the baddie, a small boy yelled out: "Sing to him!" Is that true? "Yes!," she says, tilting her head back to laugh. Her neck is firm, as is the rest of her, but she insists she hasn't had any work done, only something called "thermage". She did have a nose job, but that was when she was 25, and her mother never forgave her for it. "She was very upset. She said: 'You're 25, and you've been famous for six years with the old nose. What are you doing?'" What were you doing? "I didn't like the side shots on television. My nose was swollen," she says.

Her father was a Liverpool docker and the family lived on the notorious working class area of the Scotland Road, in a flat above a barber's shop and next door to a Chinese laundry. She says that when she first bought the house in Denham her mother would come for her holidays, along with her sister, Aunt Nelly. She adds that the first time they came they thought the gardener's cottage was the main house and then couldn't understand "why you'd give a gardener a posh house like that". She also bought her parents a house; a detached house in the smart Liverpool area of Woolton. Her mother never got used to it. "She carried on selling second-hand clothes on a stall in the market, and would then go home to this posh house. My dad loved it; took to it like a duck to water, and I suppose I took after my dad in that respect. When I was put up in posh hotels I thought it was wonderful."

She had a delightful childhood, even though she never saw avocados, a cow – "I didn't see one until I was 14 and went pea-picking" – or sweetcorn. She first encountered sweetcorn when she was invited to dinner with Paul McCartney and Jane Asher to the Asher family home on Wimpole Street, and "I didn't even know what it was." She didn't eat in a restaurant until she was 16 and went to a Chinese one in Liverpool, although it probably wasn't authentically Chinese, as "it served chips". When she and Bobby first went to a Chinese restaurant in London, off Leicester Square, "we were ordering all this stuff and Bobby said: 'Can we have a side order of chips?' and they told him in no uncertain terms: 'We don't serve chips.' Bobby said: 'What kind of a restaurant doesn't serve chips?' to which the waiter said: 'A Chinese one, Sir.'" That taught him, I tell her. "It did," she confirms.

She first met Bobby at 17 when he was working in the bakery at Woolworths – he took her everywhere in a Crawfords biscuit van – and she had a job as a cloakroom girl at the Cavern Club while also singing on the Liverpool underground scene. Where, I ask, did the singing desire come from? She says they had a little piano in their flat and, on a Saturday night, her dad would come back from the pub, her mum would have had a few jars, friends and neighbours gathered, and everyone was expected to do a turn. She remembers her first turn. "I was three and put on a table, where I did The Good Ship Lollipop. I got a big round of applause and didn't want to get off and it's been like that ever since." She adores fame and everything that comes with it. "I love it all!," she exclaims. She can't understand those who complain. "What particularly gets up my nose," she says, "is when so-called celebs go to restaurants and moan about people asking them for autographs and taking photographs while they are eating. Well, if you are not up to meeting the general public, hey, don't go out. It's as simple as that. If I'm in a rotten mood I stay in and watch television".

She became a star at 19 when Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager, spotted her, and it all happened fantastically quickly. She had two number ones in 1964 – Anyone Who Had A Heart; You're My World – and was a millionairess by 24. Did it turn you head?, I ask. Only the once, she says, when she was appearing at the London Palladium, went back to Liverpool, and sat in her father's chair. "I thought now I'm a big star I can sit in my dad's chair. Not a good idea. He brought me down good and proper. It was: 'Don't bring your fancy London ways here.'" Don't bring your fancy Chinese meals without chips to this house? "Exactly." Bobby supported her all the way, first as her road manager and then, after Epstein died, as her manager. I wonder: as she met Bobby so young and was married to him for so many years, has she, did she – oh, shoot; how to phrase this delicately?– ever spend a night with another man? She says not. She says she sometimes anchors the show Loose Women and can often feel rather left out. "It's the one subject I can't talk about, past experiences. I married my childhood sweetheart, what can I say?" Were you ever curious? "Oh yes, I reached 40 and thought: "I've never been with another man. I was curious. I really was. But, you know, I was brought up to believe you have to be totally in love with somebody before you can have a relationship. I'm still the same today. I couldn't have a relationship for the hell of it. I'm not the type".

Bobby's death, from lung cancer, was a devastating blow. It was a devastating blow on the emotional front. Cilla would go to bed and hope not to wake up the next day. Once, on a plane, she hoped it would crash, and then felt terribly guilty because of the others on board. And it was a devastating blow on the practical front. Bobby did everything for her. She didn't know how or where to walk the dogs. She'd never seen one of her pay cheques. That Christmas, she was invited to stay in New York with Peter Brown (Brian Epstein's and the Beatles' former PA), accepted, and then realised she didn't know how to book a flight. One of her sons did it for her but, on arriving at the airport, she then realised she didn't know how to check in. "Bobby did all that," she says. She also had no real idea of her financial assets, as he looked after all that, too. Wouldn't it have been awful, I say, if it turned out he'd spent it all on a mistress he was keeping in Belgravia? She says, by way of reply: "I always knew I'd be OK. I'd never stopped working. I'd had an incredible pop and TV career. I wasn't that thick. I knew I could do anything I wanted to do, and go anywhere I wanted to go, and not have to worry if I could afford it."

She misses Bobby, of course, but she has her three sons, her two grandchildren, her many friends, her many homes. She doesn't do self-pity. She is currently struggling with her eyesight; can't see too well. When she did The Alan Titchmarsh Show she was terrified she'd fall down the stairs. "Alan offered to collect me but I didn't want to look like an old woman. So I did it, but I was frightened, so frightened". She says that when she does Loose Women she can't read the autocue so has to stay up all night learning the links. She is considering an operation to replace the lens on each eye, but seems scared. I reassure her that my mother had a similar operation, it worked perfectly, and there was no pain. "Really?," she asks. "Really," I say, "absolutely." She perks up. I don't think she'd ever let herself get too down. The show, after all, must always go on.

Time to go. She says she is bushed – "I've been up since the crack of dawn" – and I think she is bushed. I thank her for the marvellous champagne and the marvellous lift that tips you straight into the living room, more or less, and all the marvellousness that comes with an invite to Cilla World. I leave via the Nicky Haslam invite over the fireplace and the framed photo of Cilla with The Beatles on the day they started Apple, their own record company. "That's their first signing, a band called Grapefruit. They were never heard of again. There's Donovan, there's Brian Jones ..." I have never been in a Hello! spin wash before but would recommend it. It's fun. (I can't speak for an OK! spin wash, but imagine it is much the same, only a bit tackier).

Cilla will be appearing in 'Cinderella' at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre from Friday until December 30. Ticketline: 0844 871 7627

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