I was just digging out Cilla Black’s greatest hits to wish a fond farewell to the carrot-topped Liverpudlian chanteuse who’s been a star of British music and, later, television for over fifty-years. I was distracted however by a recording of Edith Sitwell’s Façade – Dame Edith’s poems set to William Walton’s music – that she first recited through a megaphone at the Aeolian Hall in London in 1923 with Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh and Noël Coward in attendance.
Edith Sitwell collaborating with Walton is not dissimilar to Fatboy Slim setting Pam Ayers’ collected works to music for a concert at the Albert Hall: so wrong in principle and yet ripe with potential. One just had to look at Dame Edith – a Plantagenet witch with claws weighted down by amethysts and a narrow, hawk-like head topped with deeply unflattering hats that were pure period costume – to know you were in the presence of a woman of style and substance.
And so we come to Cilla who unexpectedly died aged seventy-two at her home in Marbella yesterday. Britain has reacted with huge shock to have lost a show business professional we’d come to know as ‘Our Cilla’ after the many, many years she spent on our television screens. We all watched Surprise Surprise and Blind Date back in the day when families viewed Saturday evening telly together rather than fiddling with their hand-held devices with the earphones on collectively or alone. We won’t see Cilla’s like again largely because the dread hand of technology has effectively killed family entertainment.
In her early twenties The Beatles first pushed Cilla on stage at The Cavern Club and got her signed up with the Fab Four’s manager Brian Epstein. Her second single – a cover of Burt Baccarach’s Dione Warwick hit Anyone Who Had A Heart – went to No1 and she had another twenty consecutive top forty hits. Cilla helped create the sound of the 60s.
It was so interesting listening to Cilla being interviewed in later life. When asked if she’d have made it without Epstein, The Beatles or beloved husband/manager Bobby she paused and said in a flat, matter of fact voice ‘yeah’. I for one believe her because I had the great privilege to interview Cilla when I was writing my Savile Row book. We were introduced through Edward Sexton who was a partner in Tommy Nutter’s business with Cilla, Bobby, Peter Brown and James Valance-White.
One of the first things Cilla said when explaining her affection for Tommy was ‘in those days I used to be a singer’. I was pleased to say without flannel that I knew and had many of her recordings. I don’t think anybody can touch You’re My World, Alfie or The Love of the Loved (written for her by Lennon and McCartney) after Cilla sang them. I think she agreed to the interview because she wanted to talk about those lost to her including Tommy and Bobby.
Tommy was Bobby’s best man when Cilla married at the Marylebone registry office in 1969. I put a wedding photo in the book because Bobby was wearing a Tommy Nutter suit. Cilla told me that when Tommy started to go off the rails she tried to give him both hers and Bobby’s shares in the business. She also said if Bobby had managed Nutters it could still be in business today. Cilla’s pay-off was that if Tommy Nutter were still alive today, she and he would be living together ‘like Will & Grace‘.
I met Cilla again at Royal Ascot when we did a brief fashion interview for the BBC. She was on the arm of Sir John Madejvsky as she often was in later life though there was apparently no question that Cilla Black was a one-guy girl who never got over the loss of Bobby in 1999. Cilla was a trouper and she soldiered on (not least with her gay magic circle including Biggins and Paul O’Grady) but you got the feeling her heart wasn’t in it.
Cilla quit Blind Date after almost eighteen-years in 2002 and though a regular on the show business circuit hers were increasingly few appearances on national television. A couple of highlights were a tipsy appearance on a Paul O’Grady Christmas special and a Royal Variety where she, Lily Savage and Barbara Windsor performed Sondheim’s striptease anthem from Gypsy in front of a rather bemused Palladium audience.
It was an absolute joy to see Cilla put in a guest appearance on Benidorm. But I wonder if she didn’t start to get fed-up of all those tribute shows, BAFTA awards for survival and even Sheridan Smith’s turn as Cilla Black for the BBC dramatisation of her early life. Actually strike that. I am sure Cilla was thrilled that Sheridan brought her 60s singing career back to the fore earlier this year. But I couldn’t help remember my late friend Sebastian Horsley who died the night after seeing a play at the Soho Theatre about his life.
Television trusted Cilla Black because she was a professional down to the roots of her barnet. I always got the impression she was an incredibly relentlessly driven character who had sufficient self-belief in her talent to keep her on top for all those decades. But perhaps without Bobby to share it with Cilla Black quite literally lost the will to live. Good God she’d done enough for fifty-lives let alone one so there wasn’t anything left to prove or to achieve.
Apparently Cilla was showing signs of world-weariness towards the end so perhaps it is a blessing that she died underneath the Marbella sun only a little past her prime. What else to say but ‘Tarra’ to the life force that was Cilla Black?