Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Step Inside Love - The story of Cilla Black and her 50 years in Showbusiness

In light entertainment, presenters can come from anywhere nowadays but the classic entertainers come from usually from a variety background, though with the advent of pop music in the 1950’s created a whole generation of stars, some whose longevity would mark them out and for others they fell as quickly as they rose.

Many of these pop musicians would go on and forge careers outside the world of Rock and Roll, such as Adam Faith who became a pop music manager himself as well as a very accomplished actor, Cliff Richard who became a favourite with audiences with his variety show. Also Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdinck, whose weekly shows attracted major stars from both side of the Atlantic and drawing huge audience figures for Lew Grade’s ATV.

However as the 1960’s was drawing to a close and pop music was going off in new directions with albums with greater and greater orchestrations, for some artists who were not involved in such musical motions there was so many choices and routes to take. They were at a crossroads at their careers with their teenage fans now grown up and moving onto new interests, whether they wanted to carry on a purely pop route, go into straight acting or the third route of moving into light entertainment. These performers who had come appeared on variety shows since the 1950’s performing alongside comedians and also other variety artists whilst on tour they had mixed with them on the early rock and roll tours with comedians being the compares. They were already soaking themselves into the world of light entertainment themselves.

Back in the early 1960's young Priscilla White was working in an office at a manufacturing company making insulated cable with dreams of moving into the world of entertainment, so she took a part-time job working in Liverpool's Cavern Club as a cloakroom attending but also doing performances of a impromptu nature when the stage was free and they needed someone to entertain the patrons. However it was these performances which impressed The Beatles and others of the Merseybeat groups.

But it was Liverpool based promoter Sam Leach which encouraged her to go into singing and he gave her first chance to perform properly at a club called 'The Casanova Club' appearing as “Swinging Cilla” in support many of the Merseybeat bands of the time such as Kingsized Taylor and the Dominoes plus also Rory Story and The Hurricanes. Though at this time she was also working as a waitress in coffee lounge The Zodiac where she met her future husband and manager Robert Willis more commonly know as Bobby. Though in appearing the first edition of Mersey Beat, a local music paper did its editor Bill Harry made a mistake by calling Priscilla White, Cilla Black. However when Priscilla saw the name she decided to adopt the mistaken name as her new stage name as it sounded more better and more of a punchy name.

Her first contract was signed with a long time friend of hers, Terry McCann. Though because she was still underage when the contract was signed that the contract was null and void, how this lead to he father deciding this was the best path for young Cilla was to sign with Beatles manager Brian Epstein who at first he didn't show an inkling to sign Cilla. It was John Lennon who had encouraged Epstein to give her an audition, though this audition did not go well owning to her nerves and The Beatles playing songs which were suited to their voice ranges rather then hers as she wrote in her autobiography What's It All About?

I'd chosen to do Summertime, but at the very last moment I wished I hadn't.

I adored this song, and had sung it when I came to Birkenhead with The Big Three, but I hadn't rehearsed it with The Beatles and it had just occurred to me that they would play it in the wrong key.

It was too late for second thoughts, though. With one last wicked wink at me, John set the group off playing.

I'd been right to worry.

The music was not in my key and any adjustments that the boys were trying to make were now too late to save me. My voice sounded awful. Destroyed – and wanting to die – I struggled on to the end.”

Cilla first concert was with The Beatles at the Odeon in Southport on August 30th 1963 just seven days before Epstein signed her up after seeing her perform at The Blue Angel jazz club as his first female singer.

Though this was a whirlwind time for Cilla, at the end of September she made her first television appearance on TWW's Discs A Go Go presented by Kent Walton who was one of the top DJ's on Radio Luxembourg at that time as well as being ITV's wrestling commentator.

Her appearance on the show promoted herself as an artist, meanwhile her first single 'Love of the Loved' written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney premiered on ABC TV's 'Thank Your Lucky Stars' but only reached number 35 on the charts. Though the single was seen as a failure relatively, however Cilla rose her profile by appearing on Juke Box Jury and setting out on a thirty-two date concert tour with Gerry and the Pacemakers. Later appearing on a five date tour with Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas in November and finally on The Beatles Christmas Show at the Astoria, Finsbury Park, London on Christmas Eve.

Cilla had made a small mark on the pop scene by the end of 1963, however it was see 1964 as her breakthrough year as an artiste. On the last day of January, saw the release of the single which was to change her life. 'Anyone Who Had a Heart' written originally by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for Dionne Warwick was heard by Cilla's manager at the time Brian Epstein when was in New York, believed the song would be right for her.

Though at the time when arriving back in London and whilst in conversation about the matter with George Martin, Martin when he had heard a copy of the song though it would have been ideal for Shirley Bassey presumed it was for Shirley to perform it. But Epstein was steadfast in his view that it would be right for Black to perform as her latest single, though with an orchestration by Johnny Pearson using a string section and powerful rhythm. It was Cilla's powerful vocal performance which helped sell the song, it was George Martin and Johnny Pearson who managed to get the best vocal and make the song seem even bigger.

By late February the song had gone to number one in the charts spending three weeks there and selling 800,000 records in the time it was there. With a 36 date concert tour of England taking place at the same time lead to venues selling out night after night, at the end of March, Cilla was presented with her first silver disc for the single through the sheer number of sales and to extend the single's success an EP of the song was brought out in April. A sign of her success was a week's residency at Manchester's Palace Theater and playing NME's Poll-Winners' show at Wembley.

May was to prove a turning point for Cilla Black's career, on May the 1st her third single 'You're My World' was released which was to prove her second number one. Taken from a popular Italian song 'Il Mio Mondo' the single had a life of its own becoming a hit in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and Europe as well. With 'Anyone Who Had a Heart' being the first number one by a solo female artist since Helen Shapiro with 'Walking Back to Happiness' in October 1961 and both singles selling over a million records plus also being awarded gold discs for both. The rise and rise of Cilla Black was seemingly phenomenal having achieved all of this before the age of twenty-one as well.

As success was coming thick and fast, Cilla was being pushed more into the world of variety appearing at the London Palladium in a show featuring Frankie Vaughan and Tommy Cooper. Her first show took place on May 13th 1964 and what was meant to be a short running show was extended into December. Though her focus at this time was still being a singer, but with her vocal style had been recognized in the United States and with the promotion of her to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show and to launch her career over the Atlantic, 'You're My World' was released reaching number 26 on the Billboard Top 100, though Elvis Prestley though enough of of the single that he had a copy of it on his personal jukebox at Graceland.

However if Cilla wanted to make it properly like The Beatles had broken America, she would have to spend more time there and tour across the whole country. But homesickness made her miss her Liverpool roots just as she was getting popular in the US. But in 1966, a song once again written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David was to come calling, 'Alfie' the title song used by the film of the same was recorded by Cher. Brian Epstein made a conscious decision to get Cilla to record a version of her own as her latest single. Black's single was arranged and conducted by Burt Bacharach, as he felt she could give the emotion in her voice that the song truly demanded. For Cilla, she thought it was one of the hardest recording sessions she had ever done. In the justification of Bacharach's demands, the single reached No9 and had become more well know than the version that Cher had sung in the film.

Where as being a vocal artiste seemed more of a viable career path at this point, by the end of 1966 Cilla had appeared on Not Only... But Also with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore also in a Ray Galton and Alan Simpson written revue – 'Way Out in Piccadilly' in the West End, on television with Frankie Howerd and on the Eamonn Andrews Show on several occasions as well as her very own television special 'Cilla at The Savoy' of which was the first to be filmed in colour.

Though her short lived career as an actress didn't not pick off like Brian Epstein had hope, with roles in the beat film 'Ferry Across The Mersey' featuring many of the Merseybeat groups in it. But she played a lead role in the 1968 comedy alongside David Warner in 'Work is a Four Letter Word'. But it was later revealed that Cilla Black was offered the role as Michael Caine's girlfriend in The Italian Job, but the negotiations fell through over the fee which was going to be paid to Cilla for playing the role.

As the acting door closed another one opened, with Cilla becoming a more regular face of television apart from music shows, Brian Epstein signed a contract with the BBC to launch Cilla as a singer/entertainer with her very own show. But in all this, the relationship between Cilla and Brian Epstein had broken down over a number of factors including dwindling singles sales as follow up singles had flopped. To try and placate her, Epstein tried to do a deal with the BBC to represent the United Kingdom in the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest, but having seen Sandy Shaw winning the 1967 contest, she thought that a British female singer couldn't win again in the next year.

This artist/performer relationship was to have a tragic ending, with Epstein dieing of a drugs overdose in August 1967. For Cilla this was a dark time, with her manager now gone she looked to her future husband Bobby Willis who had written songs for the B-side of her first two singles and had been a confident to her over her career so far. Bobby took over as her manager with such a busy period of her career and own life coming up. Cilla herself though that doing her own television was not really a risk for her as if it went wrong she could always go back to her singing and acting careers.

In 1964, she appeared on the 'Around The Beatles' television special, produced by former 'Oh Boy' producer Jack Good, though as Cilla remembers one of first experiences of appearing front of the television cameras.

One of my earliest memories was doing television dates back to 1963 in Southampton. It was only my second time on TV and they told me to dance. I danced right past the camera and there was a blank screen for about ten seconds.”

But significantly in starting her own television programme, Cilla Black had asked for one man to be her producer. Michael Hurll who had worked on Billy Cotton's Band Show was to have a profound influence on Cilla. After turning up late for an edition of the Band Show, Hurll gave her a verbal dressing down in no uncertain terms. However, this did not upset her at all, as when it came to appointing a producer for her fledgling show, it was the way that Hurll dealt with her in that initial meeting that impressed her.

Seemingly firm, but also fair but Hurll own way of believing in each show he produced and its stars within had a effect on her. So she wanted the only the best from Hurll and his creativity in dreaming up new ideas for the programme which had not had been seen on television before such as the way that an outside broadcast was used to drop in on viewers as they watched the show and also conducting interviews with members of the public as they went about their daily business. But as Bill Cotton recalled about Cilla Black and her natural way with the public in opposed to other singers who had their own shows

I had spent a long time telling other performers that it was never always about singing a song, it was talking to your audience, For example, Cilla Black . She cannot sing, however she could talk to the audience and in that type of show that is the most important thing.”

Cilla her herself had a hunger to try new things and with Michael Hurll they had formed the perfect partnership of performer and producer. In an edition of her show from December 1968, her line up of guest can boast folk singer Donovan, a regular chart topper at that time, Frankie Vaughan, one of variety's bigger stars, a young Roy Hudd in which she links up live with the pantomime that he is performing whilst the programme and a up and coming comedian called Les Dawson making on of his first major television appearances. This showed the breath of her own show, combing all the best elements of singing with her musical guests, performing in comedy sketches and interacting with the public. Such was Hurll's professional relationship with Black, that he went over to ITV to work on Surprise Surprise recreating some of the magic they had done on the Cilla show nearly fifteen years earlier.

The song that launched a television career

With plaudits and awards coming regularly Cilla's way for her show and also her performance by 1969, everything seemed to be on the up for her with marriage to her partner and manager Bobby Willis in January of that year, of which they married twice, once in a private ceremony in March and a civil service in London on Bobby's twenty-seventh birthday. By November, appearing on that year's Royal Variety Performance and the broadcast of the third series of her show were to be highlights. However in her musical career, things were not going so well.

Her single 'If I Thought You'd Ever Change Your Mind' was released shortly after Cilla's appearance on the Royal Variety show, earlier that year 'Surround Yourself with Sorrow' had reached number three in the charts and the album of the same name had been a success. However 'If I Though You'd Ever Change Your Mind' had not one as well as everyone had expected as Cilla recalled.

I couldn't hide the fact that when I had a flop record I really got depressed. When a single flopped, I really felt bad. You see one of the things I always prided myself on was the ability to pick hits. It just felt instinctively to me when a song felt right. But then I just lost this touch for picking them for myself. With other people's songs, it was OK but not with my own.”

As the sixties turned into the seventies, a whole period in Cilla's life was launched with the birth of her first son Robert John in July and more concert dates and performances in front of the television cameras with an appearance on a Royal Gala in front of The Queen one of the highlights. However with the birth of hers and Bobby's first child the press speculated that she had lost £100,000 in fees whilst she was pregnant from concerts, appearances and television programmes. Such with the fame that show business brought was also the speculation about the private lives of performers and what they got up to in them.

The tried and tested formula of her shows were working, come the seventh series in 1974, the producer Colin Charman decided to make some changes to the format with a new theme tune 'Something Tell Me' to replace 'Step Inside Love' which had been used from the first series and as he said about the first programme in a nine show run featuring Bernard Cribbins and Twiggy.

We wanted to get away from the regular run of variety guests, instead inviting actors and more unusual people to come onto the show.' On that first show in the series saw Cilla performing comedy sketches with Cribbins and seemed that Cilla would be moving in a more comedic direction, in that series the mixture of guests would range from the usual pop stars to presenters like Frank Bough more better know for Grandstand than performing in front of the camera. But having such a range gave the show new life and depth to freshen it up. With special shows on that year's August Bank Holiday and also a festive edition on Boxing Day proved that Cilla Black was now one of the BBC's biggest stars ranking up with Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies and also Mike Yarwood.

However in July of that year, Cilla had announced that she would be doing a situation comedy for ITV but quickly reassured that this would not mean the end of her relationship with the BBC as she said at the time.

That would be like a child turning on its mother. But I am keen to give acting another go, though I am an ad-libber, making new lines up on the spot but I'll try to stick to the script as more for their own sake and for mine as well!”

So in January 1975, Cilla's Comedy Six was broadcast by ATV, seeing a sea change in direction for Black and with her performance in the show she won the Writer's Guide of Great Britain's Top Female Comedy Star award for the new show, the shows written by Ronnie Taylor was as much a hit as her shows for the BBC with them being constantly being in the top three most watched programmes every week that Cilla's Comedy Six was on making Cilla Black one of only a few performers to have hit shows both for BBC and ITV in the same year but in two fields of entertainment. This was followed by another series of six comedies for ATV in 1976, however with the eighth series of her BBC programme, television critics decided to go for her in a big way. As such Cilla's programmes were seen as not to their taste, but the viewing figures showed she was still as popular as ever.

But as her television show was seemingly being hammered, her stage show 'Cilla at the Palace' was earning rave reviews. The style was akin to anything that British audiences had seen as close to a Las Vegas style show, with over £200,000 spent on the show's run including the additions of Alan Lee who had cast Hollywood performers for Broadway shows, Jerry Jackson who was one of the best choreographers around having worked with Juliet Prowse and Goldie Hawn in his time. The plaudits came thick and fast, after lasting for six months the intention to take the show to Las Vegas failed to materialize owing to the fact that Black and Tarbuck were not known names in America.

Though in 1977, things were about to change again for Cilla. With concert tours of the Far East and Australasia booked in for that year, an offer came to her which was to set her on a new path. Where as ITV had been competing against her shows, Thames Television decided to make an offer to her to work for them and the ITV network. Key in all this was Light Entertainment controller at Thames, Philip Jones who had worked on ABC's 'Thank Your Lucky Stars' as its producer where Cilla Black had appeared on in 1963. A deal was put together for her to do a one hour special, but as in the BBC shows which had been live, the Thames hour Spectacular took six weeks to make one show allowing more time to spent to make the show just right.

Without the weekly turnaround of a regular series, allowed Cilla to take for her self relaxing and spending more time with her family plus with time for the occasional television or radio appearance that she could pick and choose. But she returned to concerts and summer season to keep performing through 1978, but with the press not knowing what they would expect with Cilla having seen her comedy acting, presenting her weekly show and also producing albums as well. It was clear even without a show, the rapport she had built up with the public over the time her weekly show was broadcast had not left her at all. Her special for Thames TV was shown on May 24th with guests including Frankie Howerd appearing in a sketch with her as a punk rocker and also singing with Ricky May as well. This was meant to the first of a couple of specials for Thames during the year, however industrial action at their Teddington Studios cause them to be canceled. The same was the case in 1979 where two specials and a Christmas Spectacular was planned, but because of the ITV strike of that year they did not go ahead.

Cilla booked a summer season in the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth for sixteen weeks, this time of the year became important for both performers and also venues as well as they were certain money spinners for both, plus the chance for holidaymakers to see people they had only seen on the television who were performing on the stage in front of them. These summer season shows were good but television was their bread and butter, Cilla had spent time out of the television limelight between 1979 and 1981 to concentrate on her family life. But however she was tempted to appear on Thames' 'London Night Out' in December as she takes up the story of that recording.

Before my appearance on London Night Out, I'd been away from show business as I wanted to spend more time with the family. So I had made a point of watching the show, which I rarely do. Why? I couldn't believe the the show was actually was going on. At first the recording was canceled because of an industrial dispute at the studios, on the second attempt there was a bomb scare and the studio had to evacuated and at the third time of trying the show was finally recorded. But however during that recording my brother had phoned from Liverpool to say that our mum had fallen and broke her hip, just as I was to go on to sing 'It's a Miracle' – and I reckon it was a miracle the show even went out!”

Following this appearance on London Night Out, things television wise were quite during 1982, but 1983 was to prove a very pivotal for Cilla Black's career. On January 17th her album 'The Very Best of Cilla Black' was released with her going onto Terry Wogan's chat show on the 22nd of January to promote it. However during this appearance, it gave a reminder to viewers the qualities she had extruded during her 'Cilla' programmes more than seven years previous. Appearances in Holland on television and also topping the bill on 'Live From Her Majesty's' with Jimmy Tarbuck as its host, meant that both sides of Cilla was seen as the presenter and the performer. Though the first show that she had tried was for Channel Four and produced by Bryan Izzard called 'The Green Tie on the Tail of the Little Yellow Dog', initially they wanted her to impersonate Gracie Fields, but eventually she performed some of Gracie's song but in her own voice. But May 17th was to see Cilla record the show which would change her life once again.

Alan Boyd, the producer behind 'Game For a Laugh' and now by that time LWT's head of Light Entertainment, decided to make a pilot for a new show called 'Surprise Surprise'. He had been working to refine the format for a long while, but when Cilla was attached to the project, he had molded the format to suit her style of presenting, buy using audience participation and also filmed items outside of the studio confines as well. Though the programme gave Cilla the chance to sing at the end of the programme as well, as LWT thought an hour slot was good for the show. Boyd himself thought that a co-presenter was needed to help Cilla out, so Christopher Biggins was brought in as her roving reporter fresh from his success on TVS' On Safari series for children. Though not everyone could be pleased at this time, as Nina Myskow put Ms Black as her 'Wally of the Week' in her weekly column, stating that she was good at Surprise Surprise but when it came to singing, that she had a lot to be desired.

Even before Surprise Surprise was filmed, ITV decided to make a Christmas Special for Cilla which had guest stars Frankie Howerd, The Bee Gees and Julio Inglesias appearing. Such was the success of the Christmas show, it put her in good stead for the broadcast of the first series of Surprise Surprise in May 1984. Originally the show was going to be broadcast on Saturdays but the decision was taken to move it to Sundays instead to help boost ITV's Sunday night schedule and introducing more light entertainment to Sunday nights where there had been more dramas and serious programming previously. Such was the importance of the show, that whilst England were playing Brazil in a football friendly which overlapped, the second half of the friendly was shown live at the conclusion of the show with Cilla Black handing over to ITV Sport's Jim Rosenthal who was presenting the football to show first half highlights and the second half live. That Surprise Surprise took priority over live football was strange to think now, but this happened and show the power of Cilla's show that she could have an effect on football matches and the showing of them, though this wasn't the first time though as we'll see later.

As Surprise Surprise bedded in as one of ITV's new Sunday night staples, the show built up a loyal audience in 1984 and in 1985. However with Cilla Black's
success with Alan Boyd the controller of Light Entertainment at LWT in 1985. he let the risk aspect to letting the show grow as the series went on as he recalls.

Some of the early shows went out live, we knew there were certain aspects which needed to be changed but with such a quick turnaround on the live shows, it could not be physically done. Where as from it, words were exchanged as to what the show should be and we did not as such have a safety net to protect us from press criticism which was coming forthwith.

But by the start of the second series, Cilla herself understood what the show should be about and the the type of presenter we were look for, she had been the girl next door during the 1970's on her BBC shows, now we were looking for her to be the friendly auntie figure, sharing gifts and surprises with the people participating in the show.”

It was this new auntie figure that LWT was looking for when they needed a host for a format which had been troubling the light entertainment department at LWT for a while. They had different international version of what had been the Chuck Barris format in the United States of America called 'The Dating Game' and in Australia called 'Perfect Match'. For a fair while, they had been trying to pull together all the various aspects of these formats into one pilot programme. However the problem with all the formats from other countries that it was more raunchy than the British viewing audience was used to.

A pilot called at this time 'It's a Hoot' with comedian Duncan Norvelle had been made to show an example what the show would be like. However when the IBA saw it, they had become worried that the sexual connotations would be too much for some viewers to take on a Saturday night. So to try and change the meaning of 'It's a Hoot' they decided to give Cilla and husband Bobby a copy of the Duncan Norvelle pilot to view, though not with a view to get Cilla to present it but just to watch as viewers and see what they thought of it.

When they had both saw it, they had enjoyed it but Cilla herself still was not convinced about the format. However LWT wanted to press ahead with making the pilot into a full series, so they had gone to the IBA with the idea of getting a host who would been seen to tone down the innuendo and almost take it completely away from the programme. So Alan Boyd decided to broach the subject of present the show to Cilla as she called they had said she was the most sexless person on television and she would be good as an auntie figure acting as cupid for the contestants on the show.

So the title was changed from 'Its a Hoot' to 'Blind Date' so that it was clearer what the show was about and it seemed more tame and innocent to viewers, but ITV made the move so that Blind Date was launched on November 30th and the third series of Surprise Surprise started just before Christmas of that year on December the 22nd allowing Blind Date to have a good run of programmes and bed into the schedule before Surprise Surprise came back. Blind Date was a ratings winner allowing ITV to strengthen their Saturday night schedule into the 1990's with viewing figures for the show regularly beating those of the major soap operas, where as contained within Cilla's show was a mini soap opera with viewers wanting to know what had happened on the date itself of the chosen contestants.

Plaudits galore came along for Cilla as she was regularly named Britain's best Female television personality during the late 1980's and into the early 90's as she celebrated her 25th anniversary in show business with a concert organized in association with BBC Radio 2, singing her hits and favourite music as well as welcoming on stage and performing with her some of the best performers as well her conductors who had worked on both her television shows and special plus also on record as well. As in October of that year she also appeared on Desert Island Discs capping her career so far.

With the 90's Cilla's shows went from strength to strength because one of ITV's highest paid stars at that time. However what had been a bit of harmless flirting with Blind Date had become more saucier as culture for both men and women was starting to change, so to reflect that fact the show was slowly changed over time to accommodate new features as letting the audience decided if a contestant should date or dump the person they had chosen. But with ITV's buying of Premier League highlights and putting them at 7pm on a Saturday night at the turn of the new millennium had seen Blind Date shifted by the football and Surprise Surprise now having finished. It looked like Cilla's star was starting to wain, however when the viewers said a resounding 'no' to football taking the place of 'Our Cilla', Blind Date returned to its Saturday spot in the schedules. Though viewing figures were going down somewhat even with the new changes, so for one last attempt ITV decided to do a live edition of Blind Date thinking this could revive the format, but just before Cilla went to greet the audience both in the studio and at home, she had made a decision which was to change the course of the show altogether.

She announced that this was going to her last series of Blind Date, some what taking back the ITV executives that didn't know she was going to make this announcement live on the air on that night. Which meant Blind Date had finished but to keep her, ITV had imported an Japanese TV format which they had reworked into 'Cilla's Moment of Truth' where a family played for prizes for themselves and for their family as a whole in an end game. But the magic had run out for Cilla and the programme itself changed, so Cilla left it and it was reworked for another host to take over.

Apart from the occasional appearance at the Royal Variety Performance and also on other people's television shows, Cilla has not presented a major Saturday night show for nearly a decade and comes back to only make the occasional appearance on television programmes. But with such a long and varied career as she has had plus with ITV looking back on her 50 years in show business presented by her great friend Paul O'Grady who she performed with him and also Barbara Windsor at the Royal Variety Performance 2001. It is certain that she came from the pop scene into television and made certain formats her own. But she has set the bar high for light entertainment presenters pretty high, with no major pop star transferring to light entertainment since Cilla's departure from Saturday nights, some have tried and also rekindled the spirit that Cilla Black had in her shows, but none have quite got close as of yet.