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Sunday, 28 October, 2001, 12:12 GMT
The Power of Cilla
Cilla Black
As ITV bosses reportedly give in to her ultimatum "move the Premiership football programme or I quit", Bob Chaundy, of the BBC's News Profiles Unit, looks at the rise of Cilla Black, from docker's daughter to First Lady of TV entertainment.

"I like her but I don't know why", is the common response to the question of what do you think of Cilla Black. "She appeals to all ages, people identify with her", says Blind Date's publicist.

The decision by ITV to fill the slot vacated by The Premiership with another run of Blind Date is a safe option. Each programme of last year's series outshone its competitors with a steady 8 million viewers.

Every year, since it began in 1985, produces another intake of youngsters attracted to the programme's catchy format despite the contestants' ever-corny rehearsed exchanges.

Cilla on Blind Date
What's yer name and where do yer come from?
"It's wallpaper TV", exclaims the Daily Mail's entertainment columnist, Baz Bamigboye. "But watching Cilla is like using an illegal substance. You know you shouldn't but you like it."

Blind Date won Cilla Black a Bafta award in 1997 and she has long secured the position of the highest-paid female entertainer on television. Cilla Black OBE has clout.

It's a far cry from when "our Cilla" was a skinny teenager hanging up coats at Liverpool's Cavern Club in the 1960s. Her mother ran a market stall in the city.

Market stalls, it seems, are a vital ingredient for current Scouser success stories. Anne Robinson's mother ran one, and Ricky Tomlinson had one too. Young Cilla got to know the value of a penny.

With a determination, and the obligatory gift of the gab, Cilla White, as she was then, never missed an opportunity to get up on stage.

She was not a natural singer, but she was good enough for the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, who welcomed her into his stable as his only female vocalist. It was he who changed her name to Black, it's said, to appeal to Jewish impressarios.

Cilla singing in the 1960s
Cilla, the successful '60s singer
With the help of an endearing personality, George Martin's musical production and Epstein's canny management, Cilla Black was soon riding high in the charts with inferior cover versions of songs such as Anyone who had a Heart and You've Lost that Loving Feeling.

In 1964, an initial seven-week booking for Black at the London Palladium lasted for seven months. Two years later, she recorded what the initially doubtful Martin termed "the definitive version of Alfie", and the following year had another hit with Paul McCartney's "Step Inside Love".

Epstein's final deal for his songbird, before his death in 1967, was for her own BBC variety show "Cilla".

Her management needs were assumed by fellow-Liverpudlian Bobby Willis, whom she married in 1969. The couple remained inseparable until his death from cancer in 1999.

Willis wrote seven of her B-sides and became what Black called her "talisman and security blanket". He attended to every aspect of her career leaving his wife to check only "that her eyelashes were the right way up".

Bobby Willis guided Cilla from 1970s variety show hostess to her current position of doyenne of Saturday evening light entertainment. Her good humour and empathy with her audience brought huge ratings for Surprise Surprise as well as Blind Date.

Cilla with husband Bobby
With husband Bobby, inseparable until his death.
Her ordinariness in front of the camera has been accompanied by a resolute reclusiveness away from the television studio.

In the 1970s, the couple spent a lorra lorra lolly on a 17-acre mansion in the pretty Buckinghamshire village of Denham.

It is protected by a high fence, and one village resident of 20 years told News Online that she had never seen her once in all that time. This is in marked contrast to other celebrity residents including Sir John Mills, Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee, who get involved in village affairs.

Her former chauffeur, Albin Bakon, let on this year that he was only allowed to address her as Mrs Willis, even when not in public.

Last year, fellow Liverpudlian Ricky Tomlinson, of Royle Family fame, attacked her for losing touch with her roots. "I don't think it's enough to pay lip service," he said.

But, refreshingly for such a long-serving member of the showbiz sorority, Cilla Black's private life has been free of scandal, and her grief at the recent loss of her husband moved her legion of fans.

Not all ITV executives are said to have been impressed by her reported ultimatum, but they would have breathed a unanimous sigh of relief that Cilla Black has not made good her assertion from 1998 that "if Bobby died I would stop working."

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