ITV rummage through the archive of Cilla Black in a special documentary, Cilla: The Lost Tapes.
“Girl Power and all that, well I’m the original Girl Power. For a start I was headlining and I had an all-male bill underneath me and there was nobody doing that. I was the original women’s libber. Trust me, I was.” – Cilla Black, 2002 audio recording
Cilla Black, the marmite of British showbiz – most of us love her and a few don’t – but whatever your stance on the late personality it cannot be denied that Black was a star of music and television for over four decades. In the years following her death, Cilla’s family made a startling discovery – buried in the loft of her family home was a stash of never seen before films and behind the scenes footage from Cilla’s personal video collection, along with hours of audio recording of Cilla telling her own life story.
The material dates back to 1969 and covers Cilla’s early career, recording her hits, hanging out with The Beatles and falling in love with Bobby Willis. It includes a guided tour by Cilla herself of her family home in Denham and holiday trips to Fiji, Hong Kong and Australia during the construction of the Sydney Opera House.
Cilla’s Lost Tapes show a pioneer who re-wrote the rules of showbusiness, providing an intimate portrait of a working-class girl who became a national treasure.
Narrated by Sheridan Smith, who played Cilla in the 2014 ITV drama, this unique programme includes interviews with the family and friends who knew Cilla best, as they watch the lost footage for the first time and recall their own memories of a much-missed television icon.
In the audio recordings made with her biographer in 2002, Cilla recalls her early years growing up in 1960s Liverpool: “I had a focus in my life apart from getting married and having babies. I wanted to be a star from a very, very early age. I knew from the age of three that I wanted to go into show business.”
After working as a teenage cloakroom girl at The Cavern live music club in Liverpool, within just three years Cilla became the star attraction at The Savoy Hotel in London after being spotted by The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein. Watching footage of Cilla on stage, Sir Cliff Richard says: “Watching her sing Big Spender, I can understand why on hearing it, Shirley Bassey might have wanted to do that song. But isn’t it fantastic that Cilla did it first? I mean I didn’t even realise that piece of film existed.”
Cilla became a chart-topping phenomenon and a millionaire by the age of 25, at a time when the average working woman made just £10 a week.
Cilla recalls her close relationship with Ringo Starr: “He was like a best friend, even though he did ask me to marry him, but just for a giggle. Well, he was desperate actually because all of the other Beatles had girlfriends.”
She later recalls meeting her husband Bobby in 1962: “It certainly wasn’t love at first sight…but he was incredibly funny and unbelievably good looking.”
In 1968 under Bobby’s management, Cilla broke the mould with a move into TV presenting, by performing and hosting her very own show, ‘Cilla’ which attracted audiences of 22 million. Friend and TV Executive Nigel Lythgoe says: “Women didn’t get their own [prime time] television shows in those days, it wasn’t something that really happened.”
Behind the scenes, her relationship with Bobby blossomed and Cilla recalls how the night before their wedding she gate-crashed Bobby’s stag night, refusing to be left out of a do. The couple went on to have three sons together after Cilla made history by performing for Her Majesty The Queen at the Royal Variety Performance in 1970, whilst heavily pregnant. Cilla’s eldest son Robert Willis says of his parents: “We were very lucky that what they were doing was quite high profile but when they were at home they really loved a very simple, normal family life.”
Cilla took several years out of the spotlight to raise her sons, before making a primetime comeback in 1984 on ITV with Surprise Surprise, followed by Blind Date in 1985. The shows introduced Cilla to a whole new generation and their incredible success meant they ran for nearly 20 years, with Cilla becoming the highest-paid woman on British TV. Watching early footage of the iconic shows, presenter Holly Willoughby says: “There is no doubt that the reason I wanted to get into TV presenting is down to Cilla. She was the only female at the time that was hosting those big entertainment shows.”
Friend Christopher Biggins says: “The public loved her. She was adored. It’s a rarity that someone can have that power over an audience.”
In the midst of her phenomenal TV success, in 1999 Cilla tragically lost her husband Bobby after a short battle with cancer. Friend Paul O’Grady says: “She’d never done anything for herself. She’d never used a hole in the wall to get cash out. She didn’t have a clue. Never ordered a taxi for herself, all sorts of things like that, she had to learn. Bobby did everything for her.”
Cilla speaks of her struggle grieving Bobby’s loss but slowly found a new path and independence, shocking viewers with a controversial performance as a musical stripper at the 2001 Royal Variety Performance, alongside Paul O’Grady and Barbara Windsor.
Cilla’s music lived on in the BAFTA award-winning ITV drama, Cilla, in 2014 and a new stage musical which followed her death in 2015. But in the end, her legacy is much more than that. Sir Cliff Richard says: “There are some people who are stars, people that actually twinkle. That when you walk into the room you can’t help but look at them. And she had it in abundance.”
“It was a privilege to not only have her as a mother but also to work with her. She was a real force of nature.” – Son Robert Willis
Cilla: The Lost Tapes, ITV, STV and UTV tonight at 9pm