Happy to be Cilla
Paul O’grady on why Cilla Black’s son told him to host Blind Date and how it felt taking on his late friend’s show
It’s difficult to imagine iconic Saturday-night entertainment hit Blind Date without its effervescent host, the late Cilla Black. Fronting the ITV series for nearly 20 years, she – and ‘our Graham’, her voiceover friend – became a staple part of most people’s weekends.
So perhaps the only person who could take Cilla’s place for C5’s revival is her best mate Paul O’grady – also the subject of a C5 documentary, The Paul O’grady Story, this Friday at 9.00pm.
Paul was intially reluctant to take on Blind Date, despite getting a ringing endorsement from Cilla’s family. However, he’s now proud to be looking after her legacy.
Here, Paul, 62, pays tribute to his friend, talks memories of the original series and reveals why he had to wrestle the job off his alter ego, Lily Savage…
How does it feel to be stepping into Cilla’s shoes?
It was odd to start with – I found myself morphing into her and telling the audience we’d have
‘a lorra, lorra fun!’
I expected Cilla to
appear and say, ‘What the hell are you doing?!’ Once I’d settled down, though, it felt right. I turned them down at first, but Cilla’s son, Robert, said I was the only person she would have wanted to host it. Cilla was like family to me, and I miss her terribly because we spoke every day.
Is the revamp similar to the orignal show?
They’re basically the same. We still have the wall that comes out, and it’s still a gentle watch. The prizes are worse than Blankety Blank, though – the winning couples go to Southend or to play crazy golf. The secret was always that the show was fun and Cilla was funny herself, so I’m making sure the humour is there.
You were quite picky about the contestants, weren’t you? Yes. I didn’t want it to go all high-tech and half-naked, with the TOWIE lot having it off under the sheets on a night-cam. I wanted people who had never been on the telly before and so our contestants are amazing – some of them speak nine languages and play the oboe. I feel quite protective of them. When Cilla got the job, her husband Bobby said to the producers, ‘You need somebody sexless for this… like my wife!’ But it’s true, because otherwise it can be a bit creepy.
Are you pleased to welcome LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] singletons to the show for the first time?
I think it’s great and I did tell C5 it was important to have a bit of diversity in the series, otherwise it’s boring – everyone’s moved on. I want the over-80s on, too, you can have such a laugh with old people because they’ve got no filter. There’s a dog special in the works too, where people bring their pets.
Were you tempted to host it as your alter ego Lily Savage, as you did for Blankety Blank? It’d be great for Lily, but it’d be a different show if she had hosted it, a lot racier. She’d be copping off with the contestants and telling them not to bother with the other girls.
Cilla was always looking for an excuse to buy a wedding hat. Do you hope that some couples end up getting hitched?
No, I hate weddings – if any of them get married, I’m not going! They’re four days long, they’re miles away, you have to pay for a hotel, pose for photos and sit with millions of kids and drunks. I prefer a funeral – you’re in and out, no presents or photos and you have a good cry before all the old family grudges come out. How do you feel about the show switching channels?
It’s a great idea. I’ll work for any channel, I’m not snobby. People have been surprised, but I remember when BBC2 first came out and my mother was sitting there saying, ‘Bloody opera – that’s a waste of money. Why don’t they show a film?!’
What are your memories of Blind Date the first time round? I didn’t have a tumble-dryer, so I used to iron my jeans dry while watching it before I went out on a Saturday night. I remember when Cilla quit live on air: she told me to watch the show, which she’d never said before. They were messing around with the format and she didn’t approve, so she defiantly announced it was the last show. The producer nearly died, but Cilla wasn’t one to cross, she was a tough lady. She’d had enough and, as she used to say, work was interfering with her social life. I told her, ‘You’re 65, you’re supposed to be sat at home counting your pills!’
You’ve also got Paul O’grady’s Movies coming up on C4…
Yes, it’s lovely – they showed me clips of films and I commented on them. I had to watch weepies and I’d seen none of them as I don’t like romantic flicks. They were shocked I hadn’t seen Sleepless in Seattle. But I loved watching the Disney movies.
Cilla on the original show
Paul presented Cilla with her Bafta Lifetime achievement
award in 2014