Obituary: Cilla Black OBE, entertainer

Cilla Black, Liverpudlian singer who went on to host Blind Date and Surprise Surprise. Picture: Contributed
Cilla Black, Liverpudlian singer who went on to host Blind Date and Surprise Surprise. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 27 May, 1973, in Liverpool. Died: 2 August, 2015, in Marbella, aged 72.

Cilla Black was the lass from Liverpool who became a national treasure. Initially a major player in the Swinging Sixties she then hosted two of Britain’s most popular television shows: Surprise Surprise and Blind Date. Black was a natural entertainer with a joyous personality, a broad smile, flaming red hair and she knew how to deliver a song. She also had an infectious laugh – more of a cackle – that set contestants at their ease and when things went wrong Black was never phased.

She remained proud of her origins and at the start of shows told viewers: “We’re going to have a lorra-lorra laughs tonight.”

Her instincts were seldom wrong and she knew just how to react when a contestant, in Blind Date, for example, was disheartened at not being selected. Introductions to Surprise Surprise were always dramatic: “Not only, Shirley,” Black would announce breathlessly, “is your grandmother here tonight, but so is your grandfather.”

It was all done with a captivating sincerity. Black remained the lass from Liverpool – with reason she was lovingly dubbed “Our Cilla”.

Born Priscilla Maria Veronica White, she grew up on Scotland Street, a working-class district in Liverpool, where her parents had both Welsh and Irish backgrounds. She was brought up as a Catholic and attended St Anthony’s School (her final report read: “Priscilla is suitable for office work”) and Anfield Commercial College.

But Black had other ambitions. She was determined to enter show-business and got a part-time job at lunchtime as a cloakroom attendant at Liverpool’s tiny Cavern Club.

She was occasionally allowed to sing a few songs and slowly gained a following. A young group pushed her to go full time – they were called The Beatles. Black’s first full-time gig was at the Casanova Club, where she was billed as Swinging Cilla, but the Liverpool music paper called her Cilla Black and the name stuck.

John Lennon was instrumental in arranging an audition for her with the none too enthusiastic Brian Epstein. The Beatles provided the backing for the audition but it was a disaster.

As Black later explained in her autobiography: “The music was not in my key and any adjustments that the boys were now trying to make were too late to save me. My voice sounded awful. Destroyed – and wanting to die – I struggled on to the end.” However, Epstein heard Black live in a club where she was less nervous and more herself. He signed her as his only female artist. Within three weeks, and produced by George Martin at Abbey Road Studios, Black released her first record: Love of the Loved (written by Lennon and McCartney).

It was not a hit but a year later Black hit the charts with a vengeance – Anyone Who Had a Heart was top of the charts for three weeks. That same year she had a global hit with You’re My World and both became gold discs.

Her close friendship with The Beatles allowed her to record several Lennon-McCartney compositions throughout the 1960s. Black’s recording of Yesterday was acclaimed: she brought an emotional poignancy to the lyrics and both Lennon and McCartney much admired her renditions of their numbers.

McCartney, for example, said Black’s 1972 interpretation of The Long and Winding Road represented for him how he always intended the song to be sung. Black continued to have hits in the 1970s (notably Alfie and Something Tells Me) and after Epstein’s death in 1967, McCartney wrote Step Inside Love for Black’s first TV series. For many, Black’s sparkling television career will linger in the memory. She had an instant rapport with the audience in the studio and the millions watching.

She came into the studio and greeted everyone with: “Watch-ya?” From her first show, Cilla, in 1968, Black seldom changed the formula. The programme was different but “Our Cilla” was untouched by fame, fortune and her famous mates.

Cilla ran for a decade, and a host of stars made appearances. Despite that success from 1976 Black’s television career faded somewhat. Then LWT signed her up to host two of the most popular and long-running shows of British television: Blind Date (1985–2003) and Surprise Surprise (1984–2001, though it subsequently returned with a younger host).

Her natural exuberance and sheer professionalism as a host – she once unknowingly carried out an interview with a group of men in a brothel: “Hello, Chuck. It’s Cilla here,” she glibly said –made her the ideal choice. However banal the comments made by the contestants, Black always found the appropriate aside and giggled affectionately.

Blind Date was a hit for LWT for 18 years and made Black the most highly paid female star on television. The show was high octane – both for the contestants and the audience – and Cilla brought to all the interviews her down-to-earth and easy-going charm.

The questions were uninteresting (such as “What is your ultimate ambition?”) but the show became something of a family gathering. The contestants had a ball. Cilla also enjoyed herself and the audience figures multiplied. But the figures by 2003 were falling and Black – always the consummate professional – announced her departure on the final show of the series.

ITV celebrated her half century in show business with The One and Only Cilla Black in 2013 and there was an acclaimed TV mini-series Cilla last year, in which the title role was played by Sheridan Smith.

Many considered Black a friend – she certainly remained a much loved star for almost half a century. She once confessed: “Class, I haven’t. But style I’ve got.” She was awarded an OBE in 1997 and seldom got involved in controversial matters. She did, however, support the Let’s Stay Together campaign. Her husband, Bobby, died in 1999. Black is survived by three sons.