Belfast Telegraph

Ta-ra Cilla, your common touch made you special

By Gail Walker

The death of Cilla Black was a shock, I suspect, to many of us because she was an ever-so-British version of the Unsinkable Molly Brown. She had always been around. She always would be.

And that is the mark of a true star. Not the brief flaring in the heavens, the here today, gone tomorrow fleeting wonder. No, she was there, woven deep into the very fabric of our lives. Even if you didn't like her, Our Cilla was part of the national furniture - like the Queen, Corrie and Mastermind.

In the end the affection people held for her went far beyond rational explanation. Even the most devoted Cilla fan would be hard pushed to say that she was a great beauty, or a great singer, or even a great interpreter of songs.

But Cilla had one great card up her sleeve. Cilla Black was one of us. Yes, she must have had drive, she must have developed a professional veneer over the years but, basically, we could all see ourselves in Cilla. Less than perfect teeth and a regional accent.

We could relate to her. In some way, her story was ours.

Just look at how we think of Cilla, or rather the various Cillas.

First of all we had the Merseybeat Cilla. A cloakroom girl at the legendary Cavern Club, a Liver Bird who liked to go dancing, had a bit of a voice and managed to strike lucky. In a Britain where the old class systems were crumbling she was a breath of fresh air - cheeky, unashamed of her roots and cheerily working class, she had no need to put on airs.

Even her private life was ordinary. Cilla wed the love of her life, Bobby, in 1969. It was a romance across the divide - she was Catholic, he Protestant, and it lasted 30 years until his early death. Cilla never featured in the scandal sheets and, after Bobby's death, never remarried.

She had the good luck to be a friend of The Beatles and became a kind of proto-little sister to the era-defining group. It was John Lennon who introduced her to their manager Brian Epstein. Seeing what many couldn't, he masterminded her early career.

The connection was to make Cilla hip. Eleven top 10 hits from 1964 to 1971 - not bad for a singer who was never the critics' darling.

Then Cilla made the crossover to television. Like Bruce Forsyth, Bob Monkhouse and Eric and Ernie, Cilla entertained mums and dads, the children, the aunties. It was an age of three TV channels where the aim was to draw in the millions, not to form little televisual ghettoes; an era when a star was known to every man, woman and child in the country as opposed to today's narrowcasting, demographics and niche audiences.

I can just about recall Cilla from the late Seventies, when she was part of the Saturday night pantheon. The eight o'clock slot was patrolled by the fabulous four: Cilla, Cliff, Lulu and - come summer - Seaside Special. It was an era when the star wasn't a big, sulky ego determined to wrestle their opinions upon us. Nope, they were all-round entertainers.

Cilla, Cliff and Lulu would sing, dance, do a couple of comic skits, a little hidden camera tomfoolery with the public and still have time to indulge in some badinage with special guest star Gilbert O'Sullivan. Twenty-two million watched her programmes. Twenty-two million. It seemed like real "born in a trunk" showbiz. Proper entertainment with proper troopers. Like Brucie, Tarby and Bob Monkhouse, Cilla even had her own catchphrases - "ta-ra chuck" and "lorra, lorra laughs".

The Eighties and Nineties were when Cilla really stepped into my life with Blind Date and Surprise Surprise, huge shows which made the most of her "star with the common touch" quality. Of course, critics and poseurs sneered at these exercises in the lightest of entertainment, but such tricky-to-pull-off vehicles could only have been held together by a traditional star - someone who could talk to people (a little bit saucy, but never crude) without being condescending, someone who could actually be a part of the family (no wonder she was known widely as Auntie Cilla).

And Cilla was a proper star in another way, too - she knew the contract with the public that fame brought, and so she shared every aspect of her life with them, as if they were indeed blood relatives. Her heartache when she lost a premature baby and when Bobby died. Her pride in her three boys.

True, she provoked the professional haters by coming out as an admirer of Mrs Thatcher, but as always she'd a knack of knowing what the people wanted. Cultural historians pore over The Young Ones and Blackadder, but shudder at the notion of watching Blind Date. Which is a shame, because those would give them an insight into what made vast numbers of real people tick. In any case, Cilla was always the entertainer, happy to rack up the viewing millions with easy, middle-of-the-road, non-confrontational, televisual genius.

In other words, she was one of a diminishing band - an old-fashioned British star. She was in the same league as Eric and Ernie, Les Dawson and Shirley Bassey. And there is no higher compliment than that. Ta-ra chuck.

Follow me on Twitter @GWalker9

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