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Black, Cilla (1943-)

Singer, Presenter

Main image of Black, Cilla (1943-)

A successful 1960s singer who triumphantly reinvented herself as a popular television personality in the 1980s, Cilla Black has since become virtually canonised as an authentic British national treasure, thanks to her easy rapport with members of the public in such long-running shows as Surprise Surprise (ITV, 1984-2001) and Blind Date (ITV, 1985-2003) and her distinctively Scouse personality, deliberately exaggerated for television via such catchphrases as "a lorra lorra laughs" and her habit of affectionately referring to colleagues as, for instance, "our Graham".

Born Priscilla White in Liverpool on 27 May 1943 to a Protestant docker and a Catholic market stall worker. she left school at 14 to pursue a secretarial career. However, her singing ambitions led to her taking a lunchtime job hanging coats at Liverpool's famous Cavern Club. She successfully talked the management into giving her occasional stage spots and, thanks to some well-organised support from her friends, she became a local star in her own right. She had long been known as Cilla; the 'Black' surname came about when the local music paper Mersey Beat misprinted her real one.

This was in 1963, a time when the national spotlight was first being turned on Liverpool acts. After Black supported The Beatles, John Lennon suggested to their manager Brian Epstein that he sign her up. Although the formal audition was a disaster due to Black's nerves, Epstein later spotted her giving a much more confident live performance, and her debut single was released three weeks later. In early 1964, her second single 'Anyone Who Had A Heart' topped the charts and remains the best-selling single by a British female vocalist. The follow-up, 'You're My World', also reached number one and, although she never repeated the feat, she remained a regular chart attraction throughout the next decade.

In 1965, Epstein attempted to launch her in the US. This began promisingly, but foundered when Black felt reluctant to take on the lengthy but necessary touring. She later opted not to represent Britain in the Eurovision Song Contest, on the grounds that Sandie Shaw's 1967 win made it unlikely that a British female vocalist would triumph the following year. But she did agree to Epstein's proposal (made shortly before his premature death) that she sign a contract with the BBC for her own television variety show. Called simply Cilla, it ran for eight series between January 1968 and April 1976, initially on Tuesdays and then as a major Saturday night attraction.

By the mid-1970s, conscious of her waning appeal as a singer, Black attempted to reinvent herself as a light comedienne via the ITV series Cilla's Comedy Six (1975) and Cilla's World of Comedy (1975-76), each comprising six one-off comedy playlets. These garnered mixed reviews, and so she returned to live performance, appearing only sporadically on television until the early 1980s.

In 1983, she made a high-profile return to the medium, initially as a guest on Wogan (BBC, tx. 22/1/1983) and then by signing a contract with London Weekend Television. This led to the long-running Surprise Surprise!, which began as a variety series but increasingly focused on its most popular element: the emotional reuniting of long-estranged members of the public, and the granting of long-held wishes. Another by-product of the LWT contract was the game show The Moment of Truth (ITV, 1998-2001).

But the role that cemented her household-name status was the game show Blind Date. A format neatly combining voyeurism and prurience, it involved contestants picking partners from behind a screen. The couple then went on a trip (whose increasingly exotic destinations reflected the ever-expanding budget), before returning to be quizzed by Black as to whether the spark of romance was kindled or (statistically more likely) snuffed out. A staple of Saturday night ITV schedules for nearly two decades, it finally ended after Black sensationally took advantage of a live special edition to announce her resignation as host, to the surprise and alarm of the show's producers.

Since then, Black has eschewed presenting her own series in favour of occasional guest appearances on other people's. Since the death of her second manager, her husband Bobby Willis, in 1999, she has looked back on her career by publishing a best-selling autobiography ('What's It All About', 2003) and releasing a 40-track CD compilation. The latter led to a revival of interest in her singing career, culminating in the two-hour Christmas show Cilla Live on the digital channel Living TV (tx. 19/12/2004), though this heavily publicised comeback drew just 220,000 viewers - a far cry from the 22 million for Cilla and the 18 million for Blind Date. But she took it in her stride, saying that she would never fully retire from television - and two years later was one of the judges in the ITV celebrity talent show Soapstar Superstar (2006).

Michael Brooke

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Thumbnail image of Blind Date (1985-2003)Blind Date (1985-2003)

Long-running ITV dating game show, hosted by Cilla Black

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Bernard Braden interviews singer-turned-actress Cilla Black

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