1968 | United Kingdom

With a string of hits under her belt by the mid-1960s, Cilla Black was well on her way to cementing her reputation as one of the iconic musical acts to come out of Liverpool at a time when almost every pop group in the charts either came from (or claimed to come from) Merseyside. She made her television debut on the 27 September 1963 edition of the premier pop music show Ready, Steady, Go! and by the time she was offered her own series on the BBC she was already a familiar face on TV screens across the country.

Cilla Black

Appearances on other chart music shows such as Thank Your Lucky Stars and Top of the Pops aside, Cilla was also wanted on a number of non-pop programmes. Her natural charm, sparkling personality and quick wit were evident from the start. To TV audiences she was the epitome of 'the girl next door' who done good. And they took to her instantly. Invitations came from children's and teenage programmes such as The Five O'Clock Cluband Juke Box Jury, where she sat on a panel judging other artiste's hits (or misses). And an appearance on a chat show in 1965, fronted by TV presenter Eamon Andrews, led to 6 return invitations.

Cilla Black and Brian Epstein

By 1966, her manager, Brian Epstein was already suggesting that Cilla's future might be heading in the direction of television light entertainment. He told her that TV executives were beginning to realise that, as well as her superb singing voice, she also had what Epstein called 'the gift of the gab.' But at that stage Cilla was only interested in pursuing her singing career. Possibly with one-eye on the future, Epstein booked her for a 3-week cabaret at London’s Savoy Hotel. For her final appearance the cameras were there to film her. This went out as a Cilla at the Savoy and was watched by a huge audience. One of the biggest for a television light entertainment special throughout the 1960s. It seemed as though Epstein was right; there was a TV audience out there for Cilla.

Cilla at the Savoy

In the summer of 1967 Epstein was approached by the BBC to do a series fronted by Cilla. She would sing solo, perform with guest stars, act in comedy sketches and interact with the audience. The BBC also wanted her to perform the UK entry for the Eurovision Song Contest, but on this point Cilla was adamant. She didn't feel as though she would have a chance of winning as the previous year Sandie Shaw had won the competition. She didn't think the judges would vote for another British female singer. Epstein delivered the news to Cilla and her husband Bobby the day they were going to take a short holiday in the Algarve. It seemed as though everything was done and dusted and all that remained to be done was for Cilla to sign the contract. She agreed to do it on her return. But she would not see Brian Epstein again. On 27 August 1967 Brian Epstein's body was discovered in the bedroom of his Belgravia home, the result of a lethal cocktail of booze, sleeping tablets and other drugs. On his bed was the BBC contract for Cilla.

Cilla Black and Paul McCartney

Cilla - the TV series - debuted in January 1968. For the series Paul McCartney wrote the signature tune 'Step Inside Love', inviting the studio audience and the television watching public to "find a place where the cares of the day will be carried away by the smile on your face." It was the ideal opening number. Guest stars on that first show included Cliff Richard, Lulu, Sandie Shaw, Frankie Howerd, Les Dawson and Spike Milligan. Cilla was an immediate hit and up until the end of March attracted record viewing figures of over 13 million for each show. The success of that show, by her own admission, marked the beginning of a new phase in Cilla's professional life as one of the country's top-rated all-round entertainers. With each season the viewing audience increased reaching figures of between 18 and 22 million, before it ended in 1976.

Cilla - The BBC series

Cilla Black's television career took something of a dip between the late 1970s and early 1980s. In spite of two comedy series; Cilla's Comedy Six (ATV 1975) and Cilla's World of Comedy (ATV 1976), appearances on the small screen were few and far between. But 1983 was a good year for her, appearing in 5 television shows. These appearances reminded viewers, and just as importantly, TV executives, of her natural lasting appeal which was still very much in evidence. That same year she signed a record breaking contract with LWT to host Surprise, Surprise, heralding the beginning of another extraordinarily successful phase of her lengthy television career. In 2014 Cilla was the recipient of the British Academy Television Awards' "Special Award" in honour of her contribution to entertainment over the preceding 50 years. When she passed away suddenly on 1 August 2015, the media, the showbiz world and public reaction was testament to the legacy left behind for this much-loved entertainer. There was nothing false about, she didn't act like a diva and always kept the common touch. To everyone she was just "our Cilla."

Cilla Black

Massive six disc (five CDs NTSC, Region 0 DVD) anthology from the British vocalist and pop icon. The CDs feature all of Cilla's recordings from 1963-73 produced by George Martin. The DVD has full-length music performances from her BBC shows of the late '60s and early '70s of which 22 are previously unavailable. 

Cilla's Hits

Sheridan Smith gives a startling performance in the BBC drama about Cilla's early years.

Published on May 10th, 2020. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.