Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

Cilla Black: She was more than just a celebrity, she was a real star

As a musical based on the life of Cilla Black continues its tour, Colman Hutchinson, who produced her two big hit television shows, Blind Date and Surprise, Surprise, looks back on their 25 year friendship.

Growing up in Dublin in the 1960s, I could never have dreamed that an up-and-coming singer just across the Irish Sea would have such a profound effect on my life - but that is what happened.

Priscilla Maria Veronica White, or Cilla Black as she was known, was busy taking the music industry by storm as part of the Liverpudlian vanguard who were dominating the pop charts while I was toiling away at the Christian Brothers school in Monkstown.

I was a typical 11-year-old boy with a keen interest in music. I was a huge fan of The Beatles and of Cilla Black and can clearly remember going into the local record shop and handing over my six shillings for a copy of Anyone Who Had A Heart.

It's easy to forget just how famous Cilla was, but in many ways she was the Adele of her era with over 19 singles in the top 40. Not only was she a musical star, but she was also a massive television personality and I'm not ashamed to admit I loved the Cilla show on BBC1. I can still remember the excitement when she invited us to step inside her glamorous world every Saturday night.

And it was even more exciting, 25 years later, when fate would lead me to actually work with her on another Saturday night TV show.

I was working as a freelance television producer in the UK, having made a bit of a name for myself at London Weekend Television. I had been working with Bruce Forsyth on a programme called You Bet, when I got a call from the controller of entertainment offering the job of producer on Blind Date.

To say I was happy is a vast understatement, I was thrilled, Blind Date was the No.1 entertainment show at the time and was attracting audiences of in excess of 15 million. Working with Brucie was a thrill - but in my eyes this was a huge step up, I was going to be working with one of my childhood heroes.

I remember clearly that September day in 1989 when I first met her. I was standing in Studio 1 at LWT, awaiting her arrival. I was so nervous, wondering to myself if the old adage about never meeting your heroes would ring true?

Then she arrived at the studio, she was taller than I expected, slim, wearing black trousers, white blouse and high heels. She had a presence, you immediately knew you were in the company of a bona fide star. I was introduced, she shook my hand. At first she seemed a little detached but then immediately warmed to me when she heard my Dublin accent, joking that she was from the REAL capital of Ireland, Liverpool! We both laughed, the ice was broken and a friendship was made.

She was warm and funny and we got on like a house on fire right from the very start. Blind Date was a joy to work on and in truth, not a difficult show to produce. The template had been set and everybody including Cilla knew what they were doing. My job was to keep things running smoothly and make sure that the high standards of the show were maintained.

Keeping some of the more excitable contestants under control was one of the most interesting parts of the job. Some of these young kids would come on as bold as brass, perhaps not showing Cilla the respect she was due. Well, it's fair to say any overly cocky behaviour was immediately shut down courtesy of Cilla's rapier Scouse wit. It was always done with humour and more often than not coupled with a withering look.

The most memorable line I recall was: "Listen Sonny I've got tights older than you, so don't get smart with me." I also recall that particular contestant didn't push his luck again.

My fondest memories of my time on Blind Date, were the times away from the studio. On one occasion, we were taking a couple from the show on a date to Gibraltar. Cilla mentioned to me that she and Bobby were going to be at their villa in Spain at the same time, so if I and a few of the crew would like to pop over and spend an evening with them that would be nice. So off we headed.

I had gone to great expense to bring her a bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne, her favourite tipple. I handed over my bottle, only to be told by Cilla, you shouldn't have wasted your money, we drink cava when we are here, Champagne is far too expensive.

After drinks we headed down to Puerto Banus, where the rich and the beautiful hung out. We looked at all the fabulous yachts, it was then time for dinner so we headed to a very fancy restaurant called Silks. It was heaving. I thought to myself I hope you've made a reservation.

Reservation? Who needs one of those. Like the parting of the Red Sea we followed Cilla as the maitre d' led us to the best table in the restaurant. The power of fame and stardom was never made more clear. This was repeated many times over the years at various dining establishments, no reservation, best seat in the house. Another enduring memory I have of these times is that Cilla would never order off the menu - not because she was being difficult but because she felt it was the mark of a restaurant if they could rustle up something fresh. Whether these restaurants would have been so receptive if it hadn't been the most famous woman in the country asking is anyone's guess.

After two years at the helm of Blind Date, I was offered the opportunity to produce Cilla's other big hit show, Surprise Surprise. So half my year was spent on Blind Date and the other half on Surprise Surprise.

Surprise Surprise was a different kettle of fish altogether, and a much more challenging job. Every week the show was different. Finding suitable stories, arranging for reunions of long-lost family members and all in secret was no easy task for me or the team. It was also a much more challenging role for Cilla, in truth she could do Blind Date in her sleep, but with Surprise Surprise she had to learn all the different stories, as autocue was not an option with the family sitting on the sofa.

Just before the end reunion, there would be a musical number. During this time, Cilla and I would go backstage and go over the story of the reunion that was about to happen. I would point out the person in the audience who was about to be surprised. On one occasion as I was pointing them out, I noticed to my horror, that he had no teeth in! For some strange reason he decided to leave his teeth at home, as you do. I apologised to Cilla, explaining that when he was met undercover by the researcher he had a full set of pearly white dentures.

Cilla said don't worry, I'll deal with it. So the musical number over Cilla came back on stage and called for John to join her on the Cilla sofa. He made his way down from the audience and as he arrived, Cilla said: "Ah Chuck, if you'd known you were going to be on the telly, I guess you would have put your teeth in." Big laugh and round of applause from the audience, awkward moment beautifully recovered. That's a talent you can't teach someone, that was the common touch that made her so special.

At the end of the show we would have to wait to see if everything was recorded okay. Cilla would say: "Do we have a clear?" The reply from me was: "Yes."

Cilla's next line never changed: "Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a clear … bit like having a smear test, really" - big laugh from the audience. Cilla and I would then go to the green room and have a glass of Champagne and meet all the people who took part in the show.

I would shadow her around the room, reminding her of who was who. They would want autographs and some would have taken her little gifts, which were immediately handed to me to look after. I was a bit like a lady-in-waiting to the Queen. But she was the queen - the queen of entertainment.

On Surprise Surprise I saw a lot more of Cilla and Bobby. We went away on filming shoots, surprising members of the public in their homes, schools and offices.

To get to these locations we would either fly or go by car. When we flew I always sat between them as Bobby liked the window seat and Cilla the aisle. It amused me when they told me of times when they travelled alone and a total stranger would be sitting between them. One can only imagine the tales these people had when they got home. We also had long car journeys to some of the locations, I would sit in the front with the driver, Cilla and Bobby in the back. For hours we would talk about anything and everything. Ordinary things, like how Bobby had an aviary in the garden at their house in Denham, and he loved to go out there and sit in it watching his birds fluttering around. Sometimes he would fall asleep out there and would wake up covered in bird poo. Cilla found this hilarious. On one trip to Ireland, where Cilla appeared on The Late Late Show and we organised a surprise reunion for a member of the audience which we later showed on Surprise Surprise, Cilla said to me that she wondered about buying a holiday home in Ireland and wondered if I could arrange for her to see some houses.

She wanted a sea view and to be near to Dublin. I contacted an estate agent friend and gave him the brief. I told him it was for a Mr and Mrs Willis.

Viewings were arranged for a few houses in Dalkey and Killiney. Cilla asked if myself and my wife, Sharon, would accompany them on the viewings, which we were delighted to do. Cilla came dressed very much as Mrs Willis - not as Cilla Black. She had flat shoes, long black coat, trousers and dark glasses.

On entering the first house I could see the lady owner looking at Cilla and trying to work out if it really was her. Finally she could stand it no more and asked her straight out. The poor woman was overcome with excitement which was quickly overtaken by embarrassment when she had to show Cilla into her teenage son's very untidy bedroom - oh, the mortification.

Another householder was sure that there was a surprise about to happen for them, and was desperately looking out for the camera.

I had to gently let them know that there was no surprise in store, it was just what it seemed - a viewing of their home from a potential buyer.

The day of the viewing was pretty miserable weather-wise, and though the houses were lovely, Cilla and Bobby decided not to buy. They did, however, buy a holiday home shortly after. In Barbados! I wonder why.

Losing Bobby to cancer at just 58 years of age was heartbreaking and a devastating blow for Cilla. For all of their married life they were inseparable. Bobby was always there to reassure and encourage her. I was close to Bobby and respected his opinion on all matters to do with Cilla and the shows. When he had a suggestion, he always did it quietly and in private, most of the time his suggestions were spot on.

I never had a cross word with Bobby in all the time I worked with Cilla. We had a mutual respect and fondness for each other.

I can still clearly picture Cilla coming into the little church in Denham, following Bobby's coffin, hand-in-hand with her eldest son Robert.

Grief was etched into her face, but she was strong. After the funeral the congregation were invited back to the house in Denham.

Ever the trooper, Cilla stitched a smile on her face and worked the room like the true pro she always was. She chatted to and thanked everybody and made sure everybody was looked after. It was an amazing performance in incredibly difficult circumstances. When Cilla came back to work after Bobby's death, strict instructions were sent that nobody was to commiserate with her over Bobby's death and not to mention him at all. It was the only way she felt that she could get through. If someone was to mention him, she felt she would break down and wouldn't be able to go on.

I last worked with Cilla in 2013, I was to be executive producer of a show ITV were making to celebrate her 50 years in showbusiness. Cilla's son Robert had invited me to do this role, as he and Cilla wanted someone who knew her of old, understood her and would look after her.

It was decided that Cilla's great friend, Paul O'Grady, should host the show, which would take some of the pressure off her. In the end we had great fun making it. We went back to Liverpool and filmed a piece where Cilla revisited all her old haunts - like The Cavern Club and The Iron Door, where she first laid eyes on her beloved Bobby.

She sang on the show for the last time ever, giving a very touching rendition of Liverpool Lullaby, not a dry eye in the house.

Cilla died on August 1, 2015, at her villa in Spain. She was 72. On hearing of her passing, I was terribly sad. Her funeral in her home town was emotional and amazing. The people of Liverpool turned out in force, they thronged the streets and threw roses at the hearse. Cliff Richard sang in the church and Paul O'Grady gave a wonderful, funny and touching eulogy. Tom Jones was among the many who came to say goodbye.

I feel very privileged to have been part of this remarkable woman's life for over 25 years. Sharon and I have been welcomed to her home in Buckinghamshire, her penthouse in London and her villa in Spain.

We have been to some incredible star-studded parties.

I remember at her 60th party at the house in Denham, Sharon and I both came back from our respective loos, Sharon told me of meeting Joan Collins and I regaled her about peeing next to Jude Law. We were very excited.

And her 70th birthday party in Tramp nightclub in London was fabulous. I was completely star-struck, so many of the greats from the 1960s were there - Sandie Shaw, Petula Clark, Jimmy Tarbuck, Cliff Richard, Elaine Paige, to mention but a few.

But what I will never forget is the fun and the laughter. I was so lucky to have been asked to 'step inside' and be part of her life. There are lots of celebrities out there, but Cilla was not one of those. Cilla was a star.

 

As a musical based on the life of Cilla Black continues its tour, Colman Hutchinson, who produced her two big hit television shows, Blind Date and Surprise, Surprise, looks back on their 25 year friendship

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