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.

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - NEWS - By Kathryn Knight

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

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