Entertainment & Arts

Cilla Black: Obituary

Cilla Black in January 2015

The career of Cilla Black - who has died aged 72 - spanned more than 50 years and saw her develop from 1960s pop starlet to TV royalty.

Born in Liverpool as Priscilla Maria Veronica White, Black was brought up in a two-up, two-down by a docker father and a mother who ran a market stall.

Her stage name came about as a result of a misprint in a music paper. But she preferred the alternative, using it to launch a singing career which spawned hits including Anyone Who Had a Heart, You're My World and Alfie.

Black shot to fame at the height of the Merseybeat era, immersing herself in music while working as a cloakroom attendant at Liverpool's famous Cavern Club and serving coffee at another nightspot, the Zodiac.

She eventually followed the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers and Rory Storm and the Hurricanes on to the stage.

Her first public appearance had come about by chance. Aged 16, she was watching a gig when the band's singer passed her a microphone for a joke.

"I said 'all right mate, I'll show you' and just continued where he left off," she told the BBC's Desert Island Discs in 1964.

She later joined Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes but had to quit when the band travelled to Hamburg and her parents forbade her to go.


'Our Cilla' in quotes

  • On her first showbiz love: "I prefer to be known as a singer... that's all I've ever, ever wanted to do"
  • On failing to break America: "I was a wuss. I bottled out and I was homesick and I came home"
  • On drugs: "I never did acid, I am just so high anyway. I did smoke a joint once but I did not enjoy it"
  • On her husband's career: "I knew that Bobby wouldn't be any good on stage... His job was to tell me what to do, not to do it for himself"
  • On death: "Seventy-five is a good age to go... I don't want to linger. I don't want to be a burden on anybody"

Black's big break came when John Lennon introduced her to Beatles' producer Brian Epstein. Overcome with nerves, she initially failed to impress.

But she secured a contract when Epstein saw her again, and went on to have 19 consecutive UK top 40 hits. This included two consecutive number ones - Anyone Who Had a Heart and You're My World - in 1964, and 11 top 10 entries.

This rise to stardom was the subject of a three-part ITV drama last year, starring Sheridan Smith.

The Bafta-nominated series also charted her relationship with Bobby Willis, the man she went on to marry despite difficult relations between Protestants and Catholics in their home city at the time.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Black, a Roman Catholic, married Protestant Willis at London's Marylebone Register Office in 1969

However, it's Black's time as a TV presenter - and catchphrases such as "lorra, lorra laughs" - that many will best remember her for.

As the 1960s drew to a close, she fronted an eponymous BBC variety show that ran for eight years and could regularly command audiences of 22 million.

She ventured into sitcom acting during the late 1970s, in ITV series such as Cilla's World of Comedy. However, she admitted she "wasn't really" a good actress.

Despite that, she revealed to Radio Times last year that her agent had 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 said.



Tragedy struck in 1975 when Black's baby girl, Ellen, was born prematurely and died two hours later.

"I often think what Ellen would have been like," she said in 2009. "Especially as I think she would have been married now."

Five years later, Black went on to have her third son, Jack, and spent much of the 1970s raising her family.

It coincided with a dip in her TV career, and she focused increasingly on live performances and pantomime.

However, her reinvention was to be completed the following decade, after an appearance on the BBC's Wogan to promote a Best of Cilla Black album reminded producers how her effervescent personality could connect with viewers.

She went on to dominate Saturday prime time, hosting both Surprise, Surprise - the ITV programme that aimed to make people's dreams come true - and matchmaking show Blind Date.

Image copyright Rex Features
Image caption From 1985 to 2003, Cilla played Cupid on 380 editions of Saturday night favourite Blind Date

At one stage the latter, which she presented for 18 years, was drawing in 17 million viewers.

Black's wit, pithy put-downs and motherly advice made her perfect for the role. She developed a repertoire of catchphrases, including "What's your name and where d'ya come from?" and "Do I need to buy a new hat?"

She said she got the job because producers wanted "the most sexless person on television" to help get the show past TV regulators, who had expressed concern about innuendo in foreign versions.

The Scouse entertainer went on to become the highest-paid woman on TV, be appointed OBE and was last year honoured with a Bafta special award for her contribution to television.

Cilla Black in numbers

11

top 10 singles

2

number ones

  • 3 weeks at No. 1 for Anyone Who Had A Heart, 1964

  • 380 episodes of Blind Date

  • 3 Blind Date weddings - for which she had to "buy a hat"

PA

Such was the personality's power that, in 2001, she was said to have forced ITV bosses to shift the top-flight football highlights back to 22:30 to make way for Blind Date's return.

On one show she famously exposed one contestant, Nicola Gill, as an undercover reporter writing for Cosmopolitan magazine. She told the journalist: "You've robbed somebody of coming on a proper Blind Date."

She also left the show on entirely her own terms, announcing on live television in 2003 that that year's series would be the programme's last.

Black's life was not without heartbreak. In a 2009 TV interview with Piers Morgan, she revealed she had lost a baby girl born prematurely 34 years earlier.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Cilla Black was appointed OBE in 1997, picking up the honour with her husband by her side

She described her one career regret as failing to crack America, despite appearing alongside the Beatles on the influential Ed Sullivan show.

And the death from lung cancer of Willis in 1999 hit Black hard.

Before their marriage, she had demanded he turn down his own record deal to focus on her career and threatened to walk away if he refused.

However, the pair were practically inseparable, having reportedly spend just three nights apart during the marriage.

Image copyright Getty Images

Black's TV appearances after 2003 became sporadic. In recent years she spoke about how she "didn't want to see a 70-year-old on television" and would rather "die at 75" than suffer ill health into old age.

But she remained close friends with fellow celebrities such as Sir Cliff Richard and Sir Bruce Forsyth, while her friendships with Sir Elton John, Dale Winton and Paul O'Grady led to her being described as a "gay icon".

Just over a month ago, O'Grady presented an ITV show celebrating her life in showbiz.

Black is survived by three sons, one of whom, Robert, succeeded his father as her manager.

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