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Golden ingredients that made Cilla Black shine - and why we'll not see her like again

Published 08/08/2015

Cilla Black
Cilla Black
Cliff Richard and Gloria Hunniford
Larry Grayson
Bruce Forsyth
Bob Monkhouse

The recent death of Cilla Black prompted Joe Cushnan to look back to the wholesome Saturday night television of old - before the egos, the nastiness and the distractions.

Cilla Black has passed away and a few weeks ago we lost Val Doonican, both very successful singers who evolved into even more successful variety television performers. On these sad occasions, it is hard not to reflect on the past and the glory days of Saturday night TV in the late 1960s and 1970s. Nostalgia might blur our memories, but they did seem to be simpler times, not least because it was a three-channel world.

In recent years, we have reeled at the grubby, sleazy behaviour of It's A Knockout's Stuart Hall, Rolf Harris and, perhaps the sleaziest of them all, Jimmy Savile - all one-time Saturday night favourites.

Hall's hearty laugh, Harris' paintbrush and Savile's chunky 'Fixed It' medals drew huge ratings. But not all celebrities and personalities from those days were horrible individuals. Far from it.

There was a time when Saturday night television, particularly on the BBC, was wholesome, entertaining and fun for a gadget-free family to enjoy.

Today, the staple ingredient of popular television shows is the judging panel, a mixture of experts and egos, qualified or not, pontificating, appraising, sometimes humiliating participants and then asking the audience at home to contribute texts and votes via the device of choice.

Viewers now only half-watch television, because we are too busy fiddling and footering with our phones and tablets lest we lose touch with our real and imaginary friends on social media.

It's the modern way. Distractions and noise while watching TV used to be irritating. Now, they are the norm.

Forty years ago, Saturday night television went something like this: around six o'clock, The Generation Game with Bruce Forsyth, or Larry Grayson; a Bob Monkhouse quiz; a variety show; a US cop show like Starsky and Hutch, Cannon, Kojak, or Ironside; a Parkinson chat show; Match of the Day.

Generally, it was good stuff, a predictable menu of family-friendly programming. Sometimes, as children, we would have to get up from the sofa and walk to the TV set to change channels, or adjust the volume, as not everyone was posh enough to own a remote control. Some programmes were even in colour.

At various times of the year, the schedules featured Doctor Who, The Two Ronnies, Dad's Army and Morecambe and Wise, with not a judge in sight, nor a red button to push.

But it's the variety shows, where Cilla and Val excelled, along with a few other pop singers who slotted in nicely to the format, not least Cliff Richard and Lulu, who were at the heart of Saturday night TV.

It was a faultless blend of music, dance, comedy and, occasionally, magic, notably where white doves emerged from hankies.

Families would gather and the main form of conversation was 'Sssssshhhhh' as someone in the room noisily chomped away on potato crisps, or rustled sweetie papers in the middle of a song, or a joke.

Bill Cotton, head of light entertainment at the BBC, spotted something special in Cilla around 1968 and her television career was launched. She was 25 years old.

Each show in the 'Cilla' series was introduced by the invitation to "Step Inside, Love". The combined power of the BBC, Bill Cotton and Cilla attracted A-list guest stars, including Tom Jones, Johnny Mathis, Matt Monro, Charles Aznavour and Andy Williams.

It was a huge success and, as we know, on she went to become the much-loved, confident, safe pair of hands on shows like Blind Date and Surprise, Surprise. She was down-to-earth and had the common touch (and there is nothing wrong with either of those traits).

The safe pair of hands notion was obviously a major factor in the selection process for prime-time television back then. There was no need, and perhaps little appetite, for controversy, or edgy, unpredictable performers.

It was more a matter of trust, a contract upheld by most of the stars, although tarnished somewhat by the aforementioned sleazeballs. Val Doonican's easy charm made us relax. It was comfortable television for all age groups.

Bruce Forsyth on The Generation Game was never cruel to contestants. He would joke around, maybe toss in a mild insult before making a funny face to the camera. Larry Grayson was content to be a camp clown.

Bob Monkhouse had a slickness about him and a smarmy nature at times, prone to an occasional innuendo, but, again, never reverting to superiority, or nastiness.

Terry Wogan was similar in his Blankety Blank days. They were simpler times, indeed. The age of mainstream TV's wacky entertainer and reality Z-list celebrity was some way off.

Nowadays, audiences are different, as indicated by the late US comedian George Carlin: "I've been uplinked and downloaded, I've been inputted and outsourced, I know the upside of downsizing, I know the downside of upgrading. I'm a high-tech low life, a state-of-the-art multitasker and I can give you a gigabyte in a nanosecond. I interface with my database, and my database is in cyberspace, so I'm interactive, I'm hyperactive, and from time to time, I'm radioactive." We know what he means. It is impossible to imagine a Cilla, a Val, or a Cliff doing their kind of entertainment shows today. They do not possess the nasty gene to encourage conflicts and feuds - essential ingredients, it appears, to draw in big viewing numbers.

Television entertainment has moved on, as it should. As I reflect on the old days, I have no gripe with shows about talent, baking, gardening, dining, relocating. I just choose not to watch them. I have looked back at YouTube clips of the shows from the 1960s and 1970s and, yes, they are dated, a bit shaky and stilted, but they did what they did very well.

As I watched the news about Cilla Black's death and the footage of her singing and talking through the years, I recalled wonderful family times, unashamedly cosy as we all watched the same TV shows, especially the ones on Saturday nights.

So, remember Cilla, Val and all the other good souls who entertained us with fondness for, really and truly, we will never see their like again.

Northern Ireland’s own unique television shows in 60s and 70s

Television in Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s included the big, UK-wide shows, but also local programmes to entertain and inform home audiences.

Police 6 was a forerunner to Crimewatch. It was a simple format with a presenter, maybe Charles Witherspoon, at a desk telling viewers about local burglaries and other misdemeanours.

Photographs to illustrate the story would accompany the script. If a camera had been stolen, viewers would be treated to a picture of a camera. If a car had been nicked, a photograph of a car would be displayed, just in case someone out there did not understand.

It was television after all. At the end of each story, a number for a police station would appear on screen with the presenter's guidance: "Ask for the detectives".

In the late-1960s, Romper Room, a kind of nursery-creche show of simple songs and games, entertained kids. Who remembers Miss Adrienne, Miss Helen and Miss Rose? The presenters interacted with young viewers by pretending they could see into their living rooms.

They would chant: "Romper, bomper, stomper boo, tell me, tell me, tell me do. Magic mirror tell me today, did my friends have fun at play?"

The presenters would look straight into the camera and continue: "I can see Tommy, Jennifer, Joe, Mary" and kids whose names were called would be thrilled.

There was also a segment called "Do bee and don't bee" (complete with buzzing noises) to teach good manners and behaviour. Do be nice to your mum. Don't be a nuisance. Romper Room was an innocent and very popular children's show.

In the mid-1960s, Teatime With Tommy was a filler programme in which Tommy James would tinkle out popular tunes on the piano and introduce guest performers.

The show's theme was Tea for Two. Tommy's other show was called Tommy's Toyshop, in which singers would do a turn before selecting a toy to donate to a children's hospital.

Walter Love and Brian Baird read much of Northern Ireland's news during the 1960s and 1970s and local politics was analysed by the fast-talking W D Flackes, whose delivery has been described as "staccato articulation".

They and a number of other presenters were important, reassuring voices in current affairs during very difficult times.

Many Northern Irish actors popped up in various starring or guest star roles in 60s and 70s TV, including James Ellis in Z Cars, Colin Blakely in several Armchair Theatre plays, J G Devlin in Man In A Suitcase and Steptoe and Son, Patrick McAlinney in Oh Brother, Derek Thompson, (pre-Casualty) in Rock Follies, Stephen Rea in I Didn't Know You Cared, Frances Tomelty in Callan, James Greene in Rentaghost, Sam Kydd in Crane and Orlando and Elizabeth Begley in Dixon of Dock Green and Crown Court.

Northern Ireland has always had its own distinctive stamp on media output.

It's a country with talent coursing through its veins.

Belfast Telegraph

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