I wasn’t sexy and I knew I never would be
But she does admit that she was ruthless and would love to be more of a diva like her idol Shirley Bassey. As a new drama relives her rise from the Liverpool streets to stardom, Cilla Black reveals all to
unny the things you forget on the road to fame and fortune. Cilla Black was startled to be reminded how wonky her teeth were back in the day. When she saw the actress Sheridan Smith ‘be’ her in a new drama about her early days, it was the teeth that stuck out. Literally. ‘They had a false set made up for her, modelled on what mine looked like at the time,’ she says, rolling her eyes. The early Cilla teeth were certainly, erm, distinctive. ‘The front two were kind of crossed over,’ she says, trying and failing to convey the idea with her fingers. ‘How Sheridan managed to sing in those, I’ll never know.’
‘She got me down to a T. The singing was terrific. When she did Anyone Who Had A Heart, she was in tune at the fadeout. I wasn’t. I remember recording it and listening to the playback with George Martin and saying, “George, I’m flat there, I’m just underneath the note.” He said, “It’s fine; it’s soul, Cilla.” What he meant was he didn’t want to pay the musicians for another recording session.’
Over the years the story of how Cilla, from Liverpool’s infamous Scottie Road, rose to pop, then TV stardom has become terribly twee in the telling. The tales about how she used to do Ringo’s mum’s hair and how John Lennon called her Cyril are true, but have been told to death, surely? The surprising thing about Cilla, the three-part TV series (‘Three!’ shrieks the woman herself. ‘My first reaction was I didn’t know there was enough material for one’), is how fresh the story seems. Perhaps this is because, far from focusing on the Beatles connection, the story is more about Cilla and her relationship with her teeth and her nose (the latter she also had fixed, as soon as the money started pouring in), and the two most important men in her life – her future husband Bobby Willis, and Brian Epstein, the pop guru who made her a star.
Bobby, who died in 1999 from cancer, was her manager – and her rock. They married in 1969 and he was always at her side. What wasn’t as well known was that Bobby himself had had a chance of fame – which Cilla ordered him to turn down. Somehow she’s not as shocked at this portrayal of downright callousness as she is by her teeth. ‘Well, it was true,’ she says, when I say the young Cilla came across as astonishingly ruthless. ‘I was ruthless, but you had to be in those days, especially as a woman. When it came to Bobby, yes, I gave him an ultimatum. I said, “There’s only room for one ego here and I’ve got it.” The ego had landed, more or less.’
Bobby ha d a wonderful voice, she says. ‘ He sounded a bit like Johnny Mathis. He was a better singer than I was – but he couldn’t do it on stage.’ She says she knew if Bobby himself pursued a musical career, their relationship would be over, and with it, probably, her career. ‘We’d have gone our separate ways. I’m convinced of that.’ Did Bobby resent that, though? ‘Probably,’ she admits.
He also had trouble with her diva-ish tendencies, even then.