Paul’s hot date
As Blind Date returns, Paul O’Grady tells in delightfully waspish detail why he’s happy to fill the shoes of its original host, his dear, departed pal Cilla Black.
W hen Paul O’Grady first got the call asking him to be the host of a newly revived Blind Date he didn’t have to think twice. ‘I turned it down flat,’ he laughs.
In part it was because these days 61-year-old Paul prefers his TV work to take place out of the studio, ‘out in the muck with the animals’ as he puts it, ‘crawling round in dog kennels’. But it was also more than that: the thought of stepping into the shoes of the show’s former host Cilla Black, a dear, close friend, made him feel particularly uneasy. ‘Blind Date was so synonymous with Cilla, it was such an iconic show,’ he says. ‘I thought, “Leave it – why do you always have to keep bringing things back?” It didn’t feel right.’
It was only after canvassing friends that he agreed to go ahead. ‘I spoke to a few people who said Cilla would love me to do it – I was the only one she’d want to do it. So that was it then, I thought, “Oh, go on then”,’ he smiles.
It certainly seems the right fit: like Cilla, Paul has become a sort of
‘Cilla was like family to me... we were really close friends’
well-loved communal uncle, waspish but warm-hearted. They are traits he deploys effectively on the show, which now has a new berth at Channel 5 (it was previously on UTV), though Paul insists the show has stayed true to its original spirit and format, right down to the cheesy title music, the three hopefuls perched on their stools waiting to be picked, and of course the famous moving wall separating them from the person choosing the date.
‘We have the wall trundling out and I’ll say, “Let’s meet tonight’s picker”. Basically the show is the same,’ he grins. The only other change, Paul aside, comes in the form of Melanie Sykes, who now takes on the behind-the-scenes voice-over role previously occupied by the man referred to by Cilla as ‘our Graham’ (in reality voice artist Graham Skidmore). ‘She’s a pro, Mel, she’s smashing, and a lovely girl,’ says Paul. ‘She’s in her element as the new Graham.’
It’s 14 years since the last episode of Blind Date was shown after a near two-decade-long run, and the intervening years have made it easy to forget how big it was. A staple of Saturday night ‘teatime telly’, at its height in the 1980s it pulled in 18 million viewers – among them Paul. ‘I used to iron my jeans dry when it was on,’ he recalls. ‘That’s what you did back then.’ Cilla, meanwhile, was the beating heart of the show, all Scouse catchphrases – ‘We’re going to have a lorra lorra laughs’ – and motherly warm heart. So little wonder that taking to the studio earlier this year to step into her role was a ‘weird’ experience. ‘When I heard the music and I’m stood back stage and they go, “Your host for Blind Date...” I thought, “This is very odd, how has this happened?” I halfexpected Cilla to appear and say, “What the bloody hell are you doing?” Because it’s just so reminiscent of her and it didn’t feel right at first. But once it settled down, it did.’ Then again, it was always going to be particularly tricky for Paul, who was exceptionally close friends with Cilla for more than 20 years. The duo holidayed together up to three times a year and following the death of Cilla’s beloved husband Bobby from lung cancer in 1999 it was her fellow Merseysider who became her escort at showbusiness parties and functions. Little wonder that less than two years on from her death after she fell and banged her head at her villa in Spain in August 2015, he
still misses her ‘terribly’.
‘I really do – she was like family to me and we were really close,’ he says. ‘I used to speak to her every day. We’d go away three times a year to Barbados, although I hated the place; I only used to go to keep her company. It’s just not my kind of place, too showbiz. I go away where nobody knows who you are – somewhere like Bavaria.’ Cilla, of course, loved all the showbiz trappings. ‘She was a right old goer,’ Paul says fondly. ‘She was always the last out of a club, sitting there at four o’clock in the morning. I’d say “Can we go home?” and she’d get up on the dance floor.” Lest we forget, it was Cilla herself who brought an end to the show, revealing live on air in 2003 that she was quitting – much to the surprise of the production crew who’d been kept in the dark. She had, though, given her old chum Paul a bit of a heads-up. ‘I was up in Manchester doing panto and she rang me and told me to watch the show if I could – she’d never said that before,’ he recalls.
‘I knew she was unhappy, but she never said anything about what she planned to do. To go live on air and say it was her last show – imagine it! The producer came running on, he didn’t know what to say, he was a rabbit in the headlights, and she’s there in defiance because she was not one to cross. She was a tough lady, Cilla. I think she’d just had enough – they were using all sorts of tricks such as animation and she didn’t like the way it was going. And actually, she used to say work was interfering with her social life.’
Fast-forward 14 years and it’s Paul who wants to maintain the simplicity of the format. ‘I’d hate them to mess about with it and I’d hate them to go too far and have nudity and it be all about sex, because that’s not what Blind Date was about,’ he says.
In fact, the contestants have been a pleasant surprise, not the ‘tans and piercings’ brigade he half expected. ‘And actually what’s amazed me about them is that they come on and they can speak nine languages and play the oboe. But
‘There’ll be no celebrities on it, not those desperados’
they’re fresh, they’re new and some of them are very nervous.’
This year the show will feature one round with lesbian contestants, who’ve already been filmed, and some gay men too. ‘Yes, we have the girls and they’re fabulous,’ says Paul. There are also a couple of golden oldie line-ups, for whom he has a particular soft spot. ‘You have such a laugh with old people. They’ve got no filter, so they just come out with things like, “Oh, as long as he’s got his own teeth.” You have a hoot with them.’ I said we had to have a bit of diversity, otherwise it’s boring.’
The original Blind Date certainly existed in a very different world, one before dating apps and the frenetic activity of social media. ‘When people used to meet in the pub or a club,’ says Paul, arching an eyebrow.
On the show he deliberately keeps sex out of it as much as he can – from his side at least. ‘You have to be avuncular,’ he insists. ‘It’s like when Cilla did it, Bobby said, “You need somebody sexless for this job, like my wife” – and that’s how she got the job. Because otherwise it would be a bit creepy if you start asking to see their muscles or telling them they’ve got lovely legs, and all that stuff.’
That rather sounds like Lily’s department – as in Lily Savage, Paul’s acid-tongued drag act alter ego. ‘It would be great for Lily but it would be a different show and a lot racier,’ he laughs. ‘She’d be saying, “Don’t bother with them, you want someone with experience.” It would be irresistible, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself, a big hunky lad sat there.’
So alas no Lily, and no celebrities on the new show either. ‘No, there’s enough bloody celebrities and it’s all the same lot they truck out, the desperados who’ll do anything,’ says Paul. ‘I’m sorry, no, no, no.
‘There are no raconteurs now,’ he says. ‘When they talk about their latest film or book, you glaze over. It was lovely when you had the guest on where the book was fabulous, you know what I mean? Like Jilly Cooper, she’s a born storyteller, or Jackie Collins. I loved Jackie. We were mates for over 25 years, she was heaven. So, you got people on like that who didn’t really care, they had no filter, but then you get the others who are very hesitant.’
Paul has latterly been kept busy by another wing of his television career, becoming the Dr Dolittle of the small screen. It started with For The Love Of Dogs and has now included assorted expeditions to the African bush for Paul O’Grady’s Animal Orphans, when he’s met some of the continent’s assorted baby elephants, hippos and orangutans.
And if he’s entirely honest, this is where his heart really lies. ‘Well, you can’t help it, you really can’t, it’s a treat. I mean, where do you get the chance to take a cheetah for a walk or an elephant or baby vultures?’
At home his ever-expanding animal brood now includes six dogs, sheep, pigs, goats, donkeys, ducks, chickens and geese. He also has his own vegetable garden. It’s one reason heading back into the studio took some getting used to.
Still, he’d do another series of Blind Date in a heartbeat if there’s an appetite for it – although Paul isn’t counting his chickens. Like any reincarnated show, he knows it will attract its snipers. ‘It’s like Top Gear when that came out, they all went for it tooth and nail,’ he says. ‘I mean it might die on its behind, people might say it’s too dated, or whatever. But I don’t think so. And as long as the punters like it I’m really not bothered.’ Blind Date starts on Channel 5 on Saturday, June 17.
Paul with Melanie Sykes, who has the ‘our Graham’ voiceover role
Paul partying with Cilla in 2006
Cilla with three hopefuls on the show back in 1996