Cilla Black in her own words

Last year we talked to the Cilla about life, death, love and her biopic starring Sheridan Smith

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This interview with Cilla Black was first published in September 2014. Cilla passed away in August 2015

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It’s nearly 4pm, tea time, and a cold flute of Moët champagne is placed before me, as was always the case when I met Cilla Black and her husband and manager, Bobby Willis, who died of lung cancer in 1999. Her glass is full, and will only be sipped. She still has enough fizz, at 71, to sparkle, almost undimmed, through a day of interviews about a three-part series, Cilla, reconstructing her life as a singer before she became a Saturday-night television staple with her weekly chat show Cilla, Surprise, Surprise and Blind Date.

She betrays no weariness. “I love it when people talk about me. If I walk down the street now I’d be upset if no one came up and said, ‘Hello, Cilla’. I enjoy being in the public eye, but I don’t need applause any more, nor do I miss gossip, unnecessary publicity or photographs.”

So far she has felt unable to view the whole film although it’s been available to her for several weeks. “It’s too emotional. I’ll have to psych myself up, as I can. When I got my Bafta [a Special Award in May] Robert [her eldest son of three, now her manager] told me, ‘Don’t make a show and break down in tears,’ but just before I went on he said, ‘Get a bit emotional if you like’. I said it was too late. I’d psyched myself up.” Probably a good thing as some reports said the audience was surprisingly slow to give her a standing ovation, not that she says she noticed. 

Cilla is more than yet another 60s retro with short skirts, beehives, modest sexual liberation, Merseybeat and Mateus Rosé. Even though her story is familiar and some may tire of her professional scouser shtick – the “lorra, lorra”, and “chuck” clichés – the script and acting take it to another level, particularly Sheridan Smith, who sang live, without dubbing, and wears a prosthetic denture to emulate Cilla’s chipmunk mouth.

“She’s so believable,” says Cilla. “She’s prettier than me, a better actor, obviously, and captures the essence of the young me. How she sang with those teeth in I’ll never know. From what I’ve seen it captures the colour and even the smell of the Cavern Club [where she worked as a coat-check girl so she could watch her friends, the Beatles, make their debut]. It wasn’t nice – rat poison and sweat.” It was also so noisy it ruined her hearing. Today she’s not wearing her hearing aid implant, which makes for slight misunderstandings. 

Priscilla Maria Veronica White (her first manager Brian Epstein changed the surname, much to the disapproval of her proud father, a docker) was brought up in a flat on Scotland Road, a tough Catholic area of Liverpool. Her mother worked on a market stall and also had ambitions to be a singer, which Cilla emulated from the age of three except, she says, “I always wanted to be a star.”

At 13 she dyed her mousey hair with seven-penny auburn rinse from Woolworths (if she wasn’t a singer she’d have been a hairdresser, she says), and on leaving school worked in the typist pool at British Insulated Calendar Cables – much to the satisfaction of her parents, who had been proud when her school report said she was “suitable for office work”. Not for long, though.

A family friend, Richard Starkey (aka Ringo Starr), helped her meet Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, and after he took her on in 1963 she had two number-one hits the following year – Anyone Who Had a Heart and You’re My World. “I was so ordinary critics couldn’t understand it, but looking back that was the reason for my success. What you see is what you get. People thought, ‘I could do that.’ Well maybe they could, but as Bobby used to say, ‘Go and do it then.'”

It’s not quite so simple. Jeff Pope, the film’s writer, says he worried Cilla might think it was too left-field for her, as it’s a warts-and-all portrayal, although it appears to be – apparently at her request – a sleaze-free, sexually sanitised zone. Not that anything untoward happened – she’s Catholic.

“I’m from Liverpool, and we’re totally honest and tell it like it is, but we’re not very good at taking criticism. My life’s been a joke really,” she says. “I can’t say I’m surprised I was successful. I was determined – and I got it.” In order to do so, she had to be tough beneath the giggling, bubbly image. “I was an absolute cow if I didn’t get my own way,” she admits, and the film is something of an anti-coagulant to the sweetness of her image.

Bobby, who she met at 17 when he worked in the bakery department of Woolworths, wanted to be her manager, and also had aspirations as a singer. She threatened to leave him if he accepted a recording contract he was offered – both points omitted from her 2003 autobiography, What’s It All About? (never trust authorised celebrity tomes).

This isn’t the self-confessed Mrs Nice who never wants to upset anyone. “I had a one-track mind. My career was all-important. It sounds hard, and it is, but that’s the way I was. You had to be like that in the 60s. It was me, me, me. At times I was difficult, but I got what I wanted, didn’t I? It paid off.

“It was even more ruthless and competitive in those days. I was in the business of selling records and at one time that was 100,000 a day. Now I believe you can become number one with a weekly total of 17,000. I told Bobby he couldn’t have a singing career as well as me. The ego had landed. I knew he couldn’t perform on stage. In the early days I couldn’t either, but Bobby was the creative person in the duo. He told me exactly what to do, but couldn’t tell himself. I knew that. He wasn’t upset. Brian asked him to be my roadie. I’d had female chaperones who didn’t work out because they were such drama queens. One went out with an Italian film-maker, wore a pink negligee and was so outrageous I ended up looking after her. You know what Italians are like, terribly temperamental.

“Bobby was very good at dishing out advice to me, and I did what he said. It really worked. I’d have a crowd in my dressing room after a show saying how fabulous I was, and when they’d gone I’d ask Bobby for the truth. He told me in no uncertain terms. I knew when I’d done a bad show.” She pauses, and then laughs. “It wasn’t very often. The Swinging Sixties were fun but I was too busy making it swing for others. I worked terribly hard [400 live performances in eight months].”

It was an innocent time, too. She had a puff of marijuana in the bathroom, because she thought it only worked there, and was sick. Never again. And she had no idea that Epstein was gay. “I didn’t know what it was. Bobby had to explain it when we were in New York once.” Now she has what the press calls her “gay mafia”, consisting of Paul O’Grady, Bill Wiggins and Dale Winton. “It’s my scouse mafia,” she corrects. 

Money, she insists, was never a motive, nor did she worry she might be ripped off by record company sharks. “Fame was my objective. I’d have been very happy on £25 a week. I didn’t know how much I earned, and when people said I was the highest-paid person on TV I wasn’t interested. The money was only good because Bobby told me to buy things. I was so prudent. Once when I was touring in Scotland a comic who was on the bill asked why I wasn’t travelling in first class. I didn’t know how to answer so I said, ‘You meet a better class of person in third.’ Not any more, though. I never turn right on a plane. I’m a quick learner.

“I loved everything about showbusiness, meeting the stars, the whole ambience. I was living every young kid’s dream. I was told a pop singer’s life was three years, but I was still making money seven years later. In those days it wasn’t cool to be married and I desperately wanted to have children with Bobby. I’d have had six, but it wasn’t to be [she had three sons].

“Today I’d be first in the queue for The X Factor and there’s no doubt whatsoever that I’d win. I’ve been asked to be a judge but I couldn’t because I wouldn’t be able to tell the truth. The meanest I’d get is saying, ‘It hasn’t worked out for you this time, but go back and do your homework.’ I couldn’t be like Simon Cowell. He’s not nasty, by the way, but tells it like it is.”

Cilla ends as her television career is about to start, yet she wants her epitaph to read, ‘Here lies singer Cilla Black’. “I hope this film will attract new, younger fans and they’ll realise I was more than a TV star, but I won’t go back to singing.”

Her only regret is she never had a career in America, despite trying. “It wasn’t like it is today where you can make videos. You had to live there. I was on The Johnny Carson Show and was an overnight hit. He said, ‘Excuse me, but I’ve never heard of you,’ and I replied, ‘Don’t worry, love, I’ve never heard of you either.’

“Next day I walked down Fifth Avenue and people recognised me, and I thought, ‘I’ve cracked it.’ I went home and a few months later it was, ‘Cilla who?’ Basically I was homesick for Liverpool and England. I should have stayed in America, but I was such a wuss, and not hungry enough, was I?”

A career as a film actress was another missed opportunity. Sir Peter Hall cast her in Work Is a Four-Letter Word with David Warner in 1968. “I thought I was a good actress and so did Sir Peter, but I wasn’t really, although I ran away with the reviews. And then, unknown to me, my agent turned down the part of Michael Caine’s girlfriend in The Italian Job because the fee wasn’t big enough. An iconic movie! I’d have done it for nothing.”

She fantasised about serious parts, and becoming a Dame. “You don’t become a Dame for doing what you enjoy, as I have, but if they want to give me one I wouldn’t turn it down.”

She was unthreatening and was chosen to host Blind Date from 1985 to 2003 because the producer, Alan Boyd, thought she was the most sexless person on television and it would there- fore pass regulators without being thought salacious. “It worried me at the time, but I did a couple of pilot programmes. In the first I was told so many things not to do – ‘Don’t kiss, don’t do this, don’t say that’. Afterwards Bobby told me for the second pilot to throw everything I’d been told out of the window and be myself. Anyway, it was passed. Blind Date – money for old rope.” Surprise, Surprise lasted from 1984 to 2001.

She worries about age. A Liverpool fortune- teller predicted her career would end at 40 and she told me, and more importantly Bobby, she wanted to retire at 50. “Not because of my looks, but I worried whether people would want me any more. When I reached my 60th and was still doing Blind Date, I thought ‘This can’t be right. It’s ‘me’ time now.’”

Famously, she quit her £1.75 million-a-year job live on air in January 2003 because she didn’t want to be talked out of her decision. She has even said she doesn’t really want to see old people on television. She planned to celebrate by buying a silver Ferrari. “I didn’t, but I have a silver Bentley.” 

Earlier this year she was criticised for saying she hoped to be dead by 75. “Let me clarify. My mother had osteoporosis and it hit her really hard at that age. I watched her go downhill to the point where her head was on her shoulder, and she had to be fed intravenously, although her brain and heart were strong and she was bright as a button.” She pauses, tears come to her eyes, and she chokes on her words. “To hear her say, ‘I’m trying to die, but can’t’ was very hard.” Her mother lived for another nine years. “I meant that I didn’t want to be like that, but I ain’t going nowhere. I just thank God when I wake up every day. I’m going to grow old disgracefully. It’s come full circle and is once more about me, me, me. I can do anything I want.” 

Remarry? “I’m a ‘never say never’ girl, but I don’t see the point when you’ve had the best.” There was talk of Sir John Madejski, boss of Reading Football Club, but she says, “We’re still friends, but people read more into our relationship. I’m here today to say categorically there was nothing more.” Joan Collins advised her never to go out with a man who has grey chest hair. “Well, she’s never done that has she? Not that I know of.”

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She has one unfulfilled ambition. “I’d like to be a madame.” Eh? Our Cilla run a brothel? “No, no, no,” she laughs. “I want to own a night club, like Régine’s in Paris. I’d love that.”