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Obituary: Cilla Black

Cilla Black in 1970. Photo: Joost Evers Cilla Black in 1970. Photo: Joost Evers

Few British performers have straddled the worlds of pop music, prime-time television and pantomime with such unaffected, easy-going aplomb as Cilla Black.

At the height of her career in pop music, she had songs written for her by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and twice reached the top of the charts. A later career on the small screen saw her effortlessly commandeering Saturday and Sunday evening viewing to become the highest-paid female on the box and hailed by The Stage as “the affable High Priestess of television”.

Born in 1943, in Liverpool’s inner-city suburb Vauxhall, to a dockworker father and market stall trader mother, she proved to be a precocious performer, and as a child eagerly exploited family get-togethers and school events for a chance to show off her singing skills.

On leaving school at 15 with a report card that described her with unpromising indifference as “suitable for office work”, she took a secretarial course and subsequently a job as a filing clerk with a construction company. Her desire to perform undiminished, she took a part-time job as a cloakroom attendant in The Cavern Club, soon to be the hub of a generation that transformed popular music with the ubiquitous and much imitated ‘Mersey Sound’.

It was there Black met ambitious young manager Brian Epstein and his proteges, The Beatles, with whom she struck up a fruitful professional relationship. Smitten by her fruity, caramel-centred voice, Epstein signed her in 1963 as the only solo female on his books and Lennon and McCartney wrote her first single, Love of the Loved, which reached number 35 in what was then called the Hit Parade.

With her surname changed from White to Black – due, legend has it, to a misprint in pop music weekly Mersey Beat – her next single, Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s Anyone Who Had a Heart saw her shoot to the number one spot in 1964. It also embroiled her in a long-running feud with Dionne Warwick, whose recording of the same song had been issued in the US the previous year and whose UK release was hindered by Black’s success. Bacharach later went on to write the theme song for Alfie, the 1966 film that made a star of Michael Caine, especially for Black.

She cemented her pop credentials with a second appearance at number one in 1964 with the lugubrious but infectiously lyrical You’re My World. If she never again reached such heady heights, she remained a presence in the charts, scoring 11 Top 10 hits in all and spending 196 weeks in the Top 75, most recently last year when an ITV dramatisation of her life propelled Anyone Who Had a Heart back into the Top 40.

Black enjoyed comparable success on stage where she quickly broadened her immediate pop hinterland into variety, enjoying a long run in the twice-nightly, Frankie Vaughan-headlined Startime for Bernard Delfont at the London Palladium in 1964. The following year she made her cabaret debut at Newcastle’s La Dolce Vita, and in 1966 returned to the West End in the Frankie Howerd-led revue Way Out in Piccadilly at the Prince of Wales Theatre, which was co-written by Eric Sykes and Steptoe and Son creators Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.

In 1970, she appeared in Aladdin at the Palladium, the production’s £100,000 budget making it the most expensive pantomime the venerable venue had staged. She returned in 1973 to headline her own show and three years later co-hosted Cilla at the Palace with Jimmy Tarbuck at the Palace Theatre.

A veteran of seaside summer seasons, she hosted her first solo full-length show at the Princess Theatre in Torquay (then the town’s first venture into live summer entertainment) in 1978. A decade later, she celebrated her 25th anniversary in show business with a sell-out show at London’s Royal Festival Hall.

Black made regular appearances in pantomime, and was seen as recently as 2010 in Cinderella at the Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury.

Perhaps what went most unremarked about Black’s television career was its pioneering element, a quality deftly illustrated by her gift for marrying an approachable, down-to-earth persona to a canny sense of what audiences responded to with an even more acute business acumen.

With the eponymous Cilla for the BBC from 1968 to 1976, she became the first female artist to host her own variety show on British television. Boasting a theme song, Step Inside Love, written by Paul McCartney, it was also – and long before Jeremy Beadle, Noel Edmonds and Ant and Dec – the first live programme to feature cameras voyeuristically intruding into viewers’ homes in real time.

Black’s television profile blossomed in the 1970s – when she headlined sitcoms for both the BBC (The World of Cilla, 1973) and ITV (Cilla’s Comedy Six, 1975; Cilla’s World of Comedy, 1976) – before the Winter of Discontent and the advent of punk music wiped the variety slate clean and rendered it seemingly redundant.

When her comeback came, it arrived in the same kind of rush that had shot her to fame two decades earlier. In 1984, she signed with ITV to host Surprise Surprise, its queasy amalgam of sentiment-saturated wish-fulfilment, tear-jerking reunions and pranks securing an avid audience for 17 years.

Even more successful was Black’s 18-year run hosting Blind Date, which began in 1985 and was watched by more than 18 million viewers at its peak. Loveland, the 2008 dating programme commissioned by Sky and hosted by Black, proved less durable, failing to survive beyond its pilot show.

Black’s 50th anniversary as a performer saw a number of accolades, including an ITV special in 2013, hosted by Paul O’Grady and featuring Burt Bacharach, and a special BAFTA award for “outstanding contribution to television”, alongside a three-part dramatised biography of her early years starring Sheridan Smith in 2014.

She published two volumes of autobiography, Step Inside (1985) and What’s It All About? (2003), and was made an OBE in 1997.

Cilla Black (Priscilla Maria Veronica White) was born on May 27, 1943 and died on August 2 at her holiday home in Spain, aged 72. She is survived by three sons from her marriage to her former manager, Bobby Willis, who died in 1999.

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