While the tributes pour in - deservedly - after the news broke that singer turned all-round entertainer Cilla Black had died at her villa near Marbella at the relatively early age of 72, few have so far dwelled on one fact about her: the world where she was born and grew up has all but vanished, part of the sad yet inevitable decline of one of the UK’s great cities. To understand that world makes it easier to understand her drive to leave it behind.
Cilla Black - Priscilla White - in black and white
Priscilla White was born during the war years in Liverpool, which, as a port city, was subjected to regular attention by the Luftwaffe. That she grew up in the Scotland Road area tells you all about her origins: that community - and it was a community in the real sense of the word - was Roman Catholic, working-class, and yes, it was poor.
The Scotty Road was the area above and behind Liverpool’s docks. Those who left Ireland in the wake of the great potato famine did not all travel to North America: many made their homes close to the docks in Liverpool. Cilla had Irish ancestry on both her father’s and mother’s sides of the family.
The sights and sounds with which she grew up - the cramped and damp back to back housing, the cobbled streets, the smokestack industries that sprang up around the docks, the big green tramcars - all were swept away during the 50s and 60s. The Liverpool of the Beatles was portrayed to the world as vibrant and swinging, but in reality the city had already begun a decline that saw its population fall by 40% in as many years.
Those who met Cilla Black tell how she got on with everyone: in that part of Liverpool where she grew up, it was very difficult to do otherwise. And then there was her determination: no-one would want to have to live as her parents, and countless others in that area, had to. She was fortunate to be championed by the Beatles.
John Lennon persuaded Brian Epstein to audition her; Paul McCartney, years later, wrote Step Inside Love for her, which became the signature tune to her long-running BBC series, her way in to the genre we now look back on as Good Old-Fashioned Family Entertainment. She was also lucky to have Epstein in her corner.
Cilla was the only woman on his roster of artistes; Eppy got her a recording deal with EMI, and then that BBC series. When he tried to get her to volunteer for Eurovision in 1968, though, she wasn’t keen, reasoning that another British woman would not win the year after Sandie Shaw. In the event, a solo female singer did win, but sadly for Great Britain, it was a Spanish one.
She was fortunate again that after Epstein’s sudden death, her partner and then husband Bobby Willis stepped in as her manager, and looked after the later years when she moved away from singing to mainstream TV, in shows like Blind Date. And nobody, but nobody, else could have replaced her in that role.
That was mainly because she was liked by everyone - she was authentic, in a world where that quality was in shorter and shorter supply. And part of that authenticity was her voice, which proved that you could take the girl out of post-war Liverpool, but you couldn’t take post-war Liverpool out of the girl. Ta-ra Cilla.
We now await E.J.Thribb's statutory elegy, without which no national treasure could possibly be properly dispatched. Best I can manage is:
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu
atque in perpetuum Cilla ave atque vale,
Bit disappointed in you there Tim.
Full of stereotypical shit and completely out of context.
The "world" she was born into was typical of working class Britain, not just Liverpool. See Sillitoe's "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" based in Nottingham. Every major city in Britain was pretty much the same at the time.
So 1 out of 10. And that's just for spelling Beatles correctly.
I worked at Wimbledon Theatre when Cilla was appearing in pantomine. A friend of mine lived near her. She was not a nice person at all and in private her accent was more Princess Anne than Anfield.
I know everyone reading this will be horrified that I say such things but please don't make her into some sort of saint.
... if you say so?
"Paul McCartney, years later, wrote Step Inside Love for her"
Her first single was a donated Lennon and (mainly McCartney number) Love of the Loved which was a minor hit in 1963 when most of the hit parade seem to come from Merseyside.
I heard that she was very difficult to work with and that accent only came out for the telly.
What counts as 'difficult' for an entertainer?
Persona is all there is to sell, so it makes sense to be a bit insistent about things from time to time.
Likewise performing, which must be a scary business (I wouldn't want to do it/0, so it's not surprising that so-called stars like things to be 'just so' in the hotel,etc., and in the hours preceding an appearance.
As for the Scouse accent, and whether it became only a performance feature, who cares? She isn't the only one for whom that's true.
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