Cilla Black, OBE: 27 May 1943 – 1 August 2015.

Posted on 5 August 2015
By Chris High
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The term “Star” is all a matter of opinion, but when applied to Cilla Black it is one that doesn’t make her achievements shine quite brightly enough. A born entertainer, Cilla loved the spotlight, loved the trappings that went with it – particularly the odd drop of the Good Stuff – and loved the company not only of her many celebrity friends such as Paul O’Grady, Dale Winton and Christopher Biggins, but also of “ordinary” people – principally those of her home city of Liverpool and the Scotland Road area where she grew up.

Prior to playing The Fairy Godmother alongside Les Dennis, Jennifer Ellison and Stephen Fletcher at The Liverpool Empire’s Capital of Culture Pantomime, Cinderella, I had the pleasure of interviewing her and still remember, at the press call, the buzz of anticipation and excitement emanating from those much more experienced hacks assembled in the room when her name was announced. It felt as though the girl had come home and she lapped it up, made time for everybody she met and made a relaxed fuss of the kids who swarmed around her that day.

This was 2008 – Liverpool’s year, after all – and this is Liverpool’s premier theatre. What better way to celebrate at Christmas time than to have the one woman that had grown synonymous with its very heart? Could they possibly have chosen a bigger, brighter Star to sit atop its Christmas Tree? Never in a million years and she said during that interview, that she carefully considered every job offer that came here way, what she should and shouldn’t take on, but never hesitated for a moment when this particular opportunity came up.

She did enjoy a pretty successful singing career too. Two #1 singles with Anyone Who Had A Heart and You’re My World, as well as another nine Top 10 singles including the theme tune to one of the world’s great movies, Alfie, and the Paul McCartney penned Step Inside Love. Never the most pure voiced of vocalists, hers nevertheless had a power and resonance that captivated millions and personified a time when Liverpool ruled the music world. Her success also underlines the determination she had to thrive, though never diminishes her own quite humble take on it.

Gordon Burns – who worked with Cilla on Surprise, Surprise for 17 years – has recalled when Cilla was performing with Bob Carolgees in Liverpool, that she was placed in the position where she could either spare or kill the pantomime villain. Having asked the children in the audience what she should do, they decreed – against script – that he should die she asked: “How shall I kill him then?”
‘“Sing to him,’, piped up a tiny voice from Row Six” Burns recalled, laughing, “and that simply wrapped her up”.

That was the other side to Cilla; she may have taken her profession very seriously, but never herself. She was a typical Scouse lass, with a typically Scouse sense of humour and a typical Scouse steel that saw her through to become one of the most popular entertainers this country has ever produced; not by accident was she the only female singer in Brian Epstein’s illustrious stable.
She was the first woman on British TV to host a chat show, went on to command TV audiences in their millions with Blind Date and Surprise, Surprise and made cameos in sitcoms such as Benidorm.
She never lost the common touch, with that rich wit and vibrancy so associated with Liverpool’s natives etched deep into her DNA and brought to life so superbly by Sheridan Smith in last year’s TV biopic, making the Cilla we think we know even more ‘human’, thanks to its warts and all core.

She admitted that she wasn’t all sweetness and light and that she’d stepped on more than a few toes during her career. She couldn’t be “Mrs. Nicey” (as she once dubbed herself during an interview on Loose Women) all the time and couldn’t avoid doing exactly what it took to rise to the top – no matter who it upset –: not and survive in such a cutthroat business so effectively for 50+ years.
Nobody could.

She had to be tough. She had to be strong willed. She had to be forthright and unwavering in her objectives. Prickly? Yes; Difficult? Yes, but acceptably so.

This was, after all, Cilla Black. She had a lot to live up to and she knew it.

Sheridan Smith’s was a portrayal and Cilla was a project Black fully endorsed, supported and adored; a film which must have been difficult not only to make, but also for its subject to watch, given that such an undertaking is usually only carried out once its focus has long since passed on.

Snipers will always snipe, but so what if she moved to live in London and Spain and wherever else? So what if she liked Bollinger and Caviar and Coco Chanel? She’s worked hard – more often than not in a male dominated world – and achieved so much more than many of her peers could ever have thought possible.

What’s more, she knew where she was from and always treated Liverpool and its people with the upmost respect, which is a damn site more than can be said of some who have arguably found greater fame– mostly by as much good fortune as Cilla herself – after treading the exact same Cavern boards as she once had.

Then there is the name. Priscilla White became Cilla Black courtesy of a misprint in a programme at The Lacarno. The name struck a chord and she adopted it for the rest of her career. To be known nationally only by your first name takes something special and that is exactly what Cilla Black was and will remain to so many people: Special, Out-of-the-Ordinary … Singular.

So singular, in fact, that it is only fitting that Liverpool City Council decreed a Book of Condolence be opened at The Liverpool Town Hall because, as long-time friend Jimmy Tarbuck has probably summed up best of all: “Liverpool has lost its Cinderella; hers was a true rags-to-riches story,” and, with Cilla’s sudden passing at the relatively young age of 72, The Ball she has had to leave too early won’t feel quite the same, the champagne she loved so much won’t have quite the same fizz and the laughs she so often began rolling won’t be quite so raucous without her.

Cilla Black (Priscilla Maria Veronica White), OBE. 27 May 1943 – 1 August 2015.