Leave Cilla Black alone! You’ve got a lorra, lorra nerve to take on one of the UK’s national institutions. Pick on HP Sauce instead. Okay, her upper notes appeared to have been inspired by the noise she was just old enough to have heard before the Luftwaffe dumped its ordnance on Liverpool. But she’s not here to defend herself. Shame on all you smart-alec Zoomers.
Retro Cilla has been building as a seasonal rag for a few years, but it has really taken off this Christmas. Eight years after her death, she remains indelibly knitted into British culture. Young people know the name even if they’re not sure what she did. Those old enough to have lived through the 1980s will remember her as the queen of Saturday night telly. She honked at our Tasha as the guest flung single entendres over the retractable fence to our Darren on Blind Date. I’m honestly not sure what happened on Surprise Surprise – those were my pub years – but the programme was stubbornly there from Margaret Thatcher’s second term to Tony Blair’s own second. (Controversially for a Liverpudlian, Cilla was a great admirer of Mrs T.)
There has been some joshing at her presenting atrocities, but the current snark is mostly to do with her initial day job. In the 1960s, a great pal of The Beatles, she had foghorn hits with You’re My World and You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling. Her take on Burt Bacharach’s Anyone Who Had a Heart was the UK’s biggest-selling single by a female artist in the 1960s. If you’d asked me a few years back I would have said – I was in the pub during the 1980s, remember – that she continued to be a gifted belter of the old school.
Maybe she was that. But the performances recently unearthed on unforgiving social media tell an infinitely more troubling story. The staging. The clothes. The choreography. The singing itself. The clips seem to emerge from an era far more strange and distant than one that also found air for Duran Duran and Madonna. Were footage of 16th-century madrigals to magically appear it could hardly come over more peculiar.
Where to begin? Cilla’s version of Lionel Richie’s All Night Long has rapidly grown into a yuletide favourite. Her flailing efforts to turn the irresistible faux-calypso classic into a Merseyside pup-singalong number are worth the admission alone. But what really make this one zing are the fascinatingly various behaviours of the children milling around her Christmas tree. A few are attempting to breakdance. A few are doing that robot thing. At least one appears to be going for the catatonic shuffle favoured by the infected in Night of the Living Dead.
I will allow “No Nick Knowles November” to introduce the next clip. “Cilla Black performing Eye of the Tiger in a local leisure centre and beating up a 12-year-old,” NNKN wrote on TwXtter. “Everyone involved in this should be in The Hague.” That’s pretty much it. Cilla wanders around the gym warbling the Survivor tune before making for the ring, where, still clad in spangly top, she delivers a pile-driver left to a game young man.
You probably don’t need to be told that there is another fitness-based number that finds her yelling Olivia Newton-John’s Physical in the earholes of blameless citizens working on exercise equipment. Whereas ONJ, her near contemporary, admitted some clean-cut eroticism into the original video, our scouser legend goes for the very English comic trope that has men frightened of sexually assertive women.
There is much more where that came from.
Some of the contributors point us to veiled personal attacks on Cilla. One clip from an episode of Michael Parkinson’s chatshow finds Dame Edna Everage, Barry Humphries’ famously viperish Australian celebrity, apparently complimenting the interviewer on revealing how nice Cilla could be. “I know people who’ve worked with her for years, and they’ve never mentioned that,” Everage says with a disingenuous smile. No need for that.
For the most part, however, the craze is to do with revealing a hugely popular strand of culture that rarely gets mentioned in pointed-headed studies of the era. Millions of British and Irish people, not all of them ancient, nudged aside voguish entertainments – rock, disco, new romanticism – for an embrace of (does this concept still exist?) light entertainment. Jugglers. Impressionists. Ventriloquists. And Liverpudlian veterans failing gloriously to connect with even the most unthreatening of contemporaneous musical genres.
Survivor’s pop-rock could scarcely be more challenging to Cilla than would death metal, hardcore or UK garage. It is hilarious to see her make the effort. She would surely be happy that it has brought her yearly immortality. Cilla is now up there with selection boxes, that strange Cork magazine and people claiming “the NYPD choir” is slang for imprisoned drunks. Surprise, surprise.