Happy to be Cilla

TV Times - - Interview - Emma Bul­limore

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.

Blind Date satur­day / c5/ 7.00Pm

Cilla on the orig­i­nal show

Paul pre­sented Cilla with her Bafta Life­time achieve­ment

award in 2014

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