Date of Birth: 27 May 1943, Vauxhall, Liverpool, UK
Birth Name: Priscilla Maria Veronica White
Nicknames: Cilla Black
Cilla Black, broke through in the 1960s as a buck-toothed pop singer in the Merseybeat boom and went on to become one of the enduring stars of television light entertainment, hosting the brassy Saturday night favourites Surprise, Surprise and Blind Date.
In August 1963 she was a 20-year-old typist in a Liverpool office. A month later, having left the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein smitten, she recorded her first hit, Love of the Loved, a Paul McCartney number. By 1965 she had become the female symbol of British youth with two No 1 hits and a season at the London Palladium, and by 1968 she was a millionaire at 25. A quarter of a century later she was the highest-paid female entertainer on British television.
She made a career out of what one critic described as “the phenomenon of ordinariness”. Indeed she would scarcely demur at the description “dead common”. “Class, I haven’t,” she conceded, “but style I’ve got.” As the Liverpool docker’s daughter and ingenue pop star trailing in the Beatles’ wake, Cilla Black resolutely adhered to type: lacquered mane of flame-red hair (the consequence of a sixpenny rinse at the age of 13) short skirts, long legs and a strong Scouse accent.
After starring in her own BBC series Cilla in the late 1960s, she moved to ITV to star in a live Saturday night variety show, popping up “somewhere in Britain” with a camera crew to knock at someone’s front door. She once famously disturbed a man who skulked blinking on to his balcony followed by someone else’s wife wrapped in a sheet; another “Come on, luv, it’s Cilla 'ere” intrusion took her into a room where rows of embarrassed men on chairs who muttered one-word answers to her increasingly querulous questions turned out to be the clientele of the local brothel.
It was her ability to combine mischievous curiosity with deadpan humour that sealed her success with Surprise, Surprise (1984) on ITV, the strangely gripping show for which she was paid £15,000 a week. As well as emotional reunions of long-lost relatives, the show featured “Cillagrams”, in which she again turned up at a location unannounced but this time marking some special occasion with a song. Invited to the run-down port of Holyhead by the local Mayor, she sang Hooray for Holyhead in the main street, the watching crowds swelled by the staff of Woolworths who trooped out to hear her while looters trooped in through the back door and plundered the shop.
Unashamedly working-class, the show was panned by the critics as rubbish, but Cilla was unflinching. “I didn’t choose television. Television chose me,” she said. “I was a bit of fun and a bit of Scouse rough and everybody liked me, I was normal. I could have been the kid next door. And then I turned into the auntie next door. And now I’m the granny next door.”
But accusations of bad taste followed when, at Christmas 1987, the show took her to a hospital at Zeebrugge where victims of the ferry disaster were being treated, and she led medical staff and survivors through the streets of Bruges singing Little Drummer Boy.
“She really is a battler,” noted The Daily Telegraph critic, “and has honed to a fine edge her skills of cajolery, intimacy and self-deprecation .”
Her second television hit, Blind Date, launched in 1985, was a game of flirtatious lucky-dip between the sexes featuring participants separated by a screen who paired off without seeing each other amid laboured, scripted repartee. She had seen the show while touring in Australia, thought it hysterical and urged LWT to make a British version. The programme was compulsive viewing for many, although it came to be criticised for its increasingly explicit sexual innuendo.
The success rate for many of the couples was low, and most viewers tuned in to watch Cilla’s brilliantly scathing put-downs delivered (usually to the men) with robust Scouse grit. Three of the paired-up couples did, however, get as far as the altar after meeting on the show, and Cilla was guest of honour at all three weddings. In January 2003 she announced during a live broadcast that she was leaving Blind Date after 18 years. Paul O’Grady and Dale Winton were both lined up to replace her, but the show was cancelled after she left.
Priscilla Maria Veronica White was born in Liverpool on May 27 1943, the only daughter of a Mersey docker. Her mother ran a market stall selling stockings and trinkets. The family lived in a four-roomed council flat above a barber’s shop on Scotland Road, the rough and ready “Scottie Road” of Liverpool folklore and an Irish-Catholic stronghold; until she was nine, they had no indoor lavatory and bathed in a tin tub in front of the kitchen stove.
Priscilla Maria Veronica White was born 27 May 1943, Vauxhall, Liverpool, UK and educated at St Anthony’s Catholic secondary modern school nearby, she left at 15 to learn office skills at Anfield Commercial College. Within a year, she had taken a job at £4 a week as a filing clerk at British Insulated Callenders Cables, where she typed and deployed her 80wpm shorthand, supplementing her wages during her lunch hour by checking the coats at the Cavern Club, the up-and-coming music venue in Mathew Street in Liverpool city centre. At night she sang with some of the emergent Merseybeat groups such as Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and the Big Three.
At the nearby Iron Door club, she also sang with the still-unknown Beatles, courtesy of John Lennon who called her “Cyril”. In early 1962 Lennon introduced her to the Beatles’ new manager, Brian Epstein, who rejected her after she underwent an impromptu audition in the middle of a Beatles show at the Majestic ballroom in Birkenhead; she sang Gershwin’s Summertime but it was not in her key.
Her luck changed when, accompanied by John Rubin’s modern jazz group, she sang a few standards at the Blue Angel club, not knowing that, again, Epstein was in the audience. By now the Beatles were on their way to stardom, and Epstein’s talent stable was expanding. “Why didn’t you sing like that before?” Epstein asked. He was convinced that Cilla would become a huge star. Having changed her name to Cilla Black (the local Mersey Beat newspaper had mistakenly called her by the wrong colour) she made her first proper appearance with the Beatles at the Odeon, Southport, on August 30 1963, watched by Epstein’s father, Harry, who predicted she would be “the next Gracie Fields”.
A week later, over Sunday tea, Cilla and her father signed a contract with Brian Epstein. She was to be his first designer pop star and so was born Cilla black.
Cilla’s first single, Love of the Loved, written by Paul McCartney, charted disappointingly at number 35. But in February 1964 she had her first number one with Burt Bacharach’s Anyone Who Had A Heart. The American singer Dionne Warwick, who had already released her own recording of the song in the US, was miffed; while her version sounded effortless it was apparent that, as one critic put it, “Cilla was straining her garters”. Cilla Black herself recalled 30 years later: “Dionne was dead choked and she’s never forgiven me to this day.”
Epstein had heard Warwick’s record in the USA and had returned to Britain with a copy which he played to the producer George Martin. He immediately declared it would be perfect for Shirley Bassey. When Epstein insisted he had earmarked it for Cilla, Martin doubted that the Liverpool singer had the vocal ability to pull off such a powerful number. In the event Cilla’s recording sold a million copies.
When in May she followed up with a second No 1, You’re My World, Cilla became the first British female singer to have two successive No 1 hits. She appeared in that year’s Royal Variety Performance, where she met Gracie Fields, who did not take to her. Nor did Noël Coward, watching in the stalls, who thought her “ghastly beyond belief”.
In November 1966 she appeared with the comedian Frankie Howerd in Way Out in Piccadilly (Prince of Wales), the start of a long-standing friendship between them. The following year she signed a £63,000 contract to present her own series, Cilla, on BBC Television. Paul McCartney wrote the signature tune, Step Inside Love, and the critics loved her. “She’s ordinary and unassuming,” noted Philip Purser in The Sunday Telegraph, “and still tickled to death at being plucked out of the typing pool by the great god Pop.”
Cilla Black married her long-time boyfriend and manager, Bobby Willis, in 1969 who later died in 1999.
An appearance on Terry Wogan’s television chat show in 1983 was followed by a similar date with Jimmy Tarbuck on ITV; this was seen by John Birt, then director of programmes for LWT, who was struck by her fresh, unaffected, and “delicious, naturally funny” style. Realising her potential as a game show host, he booked her for Surprise, Surprise. She became a regular guest at Birt’s lunches for fellow celebrity Scousers when, with the likes of Anne Robinson, Roger McGough and Robert Runcie, then Archbishop of Canterbury, she tucked in to chip butties, scouse stew with pickled beetroot and jelly and evaporated milk.
Cilla Black never refused an interview request, the River Room at the Savoy being her venue of choice, and the presence of her beloved husband being a pre-condition a relic of her being invited, by one journalist in the 1960s, to stroke his war wound.
Politically, she swung from supporting Harold Wilson in the 1960s to backing John Major in the 1990s. She was an enthusiastic supporter of Margaret Thatcher . In August 2014, she was one of 200 public figures who were signatories to a letter to the Guardian opposing Scottish independence in the run-up to September’s referendum.
Cilla Black was named ITV Personality of the Year for Blind Date in 1987 and Variety Club Showbusiness Personality of 1991. She won a Bafta in 1995, but disliked being labelled a television presenter. “I always think of myself as a singer. That’s what I want on my gravestone: Here lies Cilla Black, singer. Not TV presenter.”
Appointed OBE in 1997, the proudest moment of her career, she once declared, was “absolutely rubbing shoulders with and meeting the Royal family”. At her own palatial 10-bedroomed house in Denham, Buckinghamshire, once owned by Sir Malcolm Sargent and bought in 1965 for £40,000, she enjoyed her 17-acre garden and, in keeping with her lifelong frugality, vacuumed it herself every Sunday (the housekeeper’s day off) “in case the Queen drops in”.
She published her memoirs, Step Inside, in 1985. In 1994 she turned down an honorary fellowship from Liverpool John Moores University (formerly Polytechnic) when some of the students complained it would “devalue” their degrees.
In 2014 the actress Sheridan Smith gave a highly acclaimed performance in Cilla, a three-part television drama about Cilla Black’s rise to fame, acted, noted The Daily Telegraph, with a “killer combination of warmth, mischievousness and vulnerability”. Cilla herself described the portrayal as “terrific”, adding, “but God knows how she sang so well with those false teeth in.”
“I didn’t want to be Doris Day,” Cilla Black once reflected, “but I wanted what went with it. She’d talk about her backyard and it was three acres of lawn; our backyard was where we kept the coal. I wanted her backyard, the fame and fortune. If there had been Blind Date then, I would have been first in the queue.”
Date of Birth: 28 January 1928, Pensford, Somerset, UK
Birth Name: Bernard Stanley Bilk
Nicknames: Acker Bilk
Acker Bilk was a jazz clarinettist and bandleader who became a hugely popular figure in the wider world of entertainment; his recordings, in particular Stranger On The Shore, figured among the bestselling records of the 20th century.
Bilk’s popular appeal owed almost as much to his unaffected and avuncular manner as to the warm, sentimental sound of his clarinet. Similarly, his bowler-hatted figure was as instantly recognisable as his tone and style. Despite his great popularity, Bilk retained his commitment to jazz and led a series of excellent bands throughout his career.
Bernard Stanley Bilk was born on January 28 1929 in Pensford, Somerset, the son of a cabinet maker. His mother played the organ in the chapel where his father acted as a lay preacher. Bilk acquired the nickname “Acker”, a local word meaning “pal” or “mate”, as a boy.
His mother insisted on his taking formal piano lessons which, he claimed, almost killed his interest in music. His boyhood exploits around the village resulted in several injuries, including the loss of two front teeth and the top joint of a finger. He later claimed that these disabilities contributed to his individual style of playing.
Leaving school at 14, Bilk worked first at the Wills tobacco factory in Bristol, at a wage of £1 4s a week, and later as a builder’s labourer and blacksmith’s apprentice. He took up the clarinet in 1948, while on National Service in Egypt, and formed a semi-professional band in Bristol shortly after demobilisation.
Early in 1954 Bilk was invited to join the band of Ken Colyer, Britain’s leading New Orleans-style musician. He found life in London so disagreeable that he left after only a few months, returned home and took a variety of manual jobs. In 1956 he formed his Paramount Jazz Band.
Realising that the band’s only chance of establishing itself lay in having a London base, in 1957 Bilk braved the capital once more. Traditional, or “Trad”, jazz was now growing in popularity throughout Europe, and he secured a six-week engagement in Düsseldorf.
The long nightly sessions imparted a professional polish to the band and they returned home in perfect form to take advantage of the burgeoning Trad craze.
It was Bilk’s good fortune to have his advertising handled by the publicist Peter Leslie, who was later to play a role in promoting the Beatles’ early career. Leslie hit upon the idea of presenting Bilk and the band in the guise of Edwardian showmen or prizefighters.
They appeared dressed in waistcoats, shirtsleeves and bowler hats. Bilk himself was always billed as “Mr Acker Bilk”, while the band’s record albums, press advertisements and handbills came complete with yards of Leslie’s orotund, mock-Edwardian prose: “The notes flew out in that Style much favoured in the American City of New Orleans: so Spirited in its Execution, so Subtle and Melodious in Conception.”
Leslie’s strategy for creating a distinctive image worked well. Young Trad fans adopted the bowler hat as their identifying symbol and, somewhat to his alarm, Acker Bilk found himself a leader of pop fashion at the beginning of the Sixties. He played a prominent role in Dick Lester’s It’s Trad, Dad!, the archetypal youth film of the time.
In 1960 he recorded his composition Stranger On The Shore with a string orchestra, as the theme music to a BBC television play for children. The tune caught on and became the first-ever simultaneous hit in Britain and America, remaining in the Top 30 singles chart for 53 weeks, gaining an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.
The tune which he habitually referred to as “my old-age pension,” was subsequently recorded by dozens of other artists, including Duke Ellington, and continues to sell in prodigious quantities.
Although the boom in Trad jazz came to an abrupt end in 1963, with the rise of the Beatles, Bilk continued to pursue his double-sided career with great success. The band, freed from the need to conform to the strict Trad format, blossomed into a fine, open-textured mainstream jazz sextet.
Meanwhile, a long series of attractive, easy-listening albums emerged to supply an apparently insatiable market. The ubiquitous sound of Acker with strings, still to be heard in shops, bars, hotel lobbies, lifts and aeroplanes around the world, brought him numerous awards. Particularly successful were the albums Sheer Magic and Evergreen, both of which gained gold discs.
Although he did not have to, Bilk continued to tour the world with his Paramount Jazz Band. The generation which had taken to him as teenagers continued to flock to his performances as adults, often bringing their children and grandchildren with them in later years.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, he took care not to allow his show to harden into an ossified routine, but it would always end in the same way. He would don the bowler hat, which had been lying prominently placed on the piano throughout. This simple action invariably brought storms of applause which died away to silence as he played the first notes of Stranger On The Shore.
In recent years, Bilk began to limit the number of his appearances. A keen amateur painter, he spent more time painting and relaxing at his home in Pensford than in his big house at Potters Bar, north London. In 2000 he was treated for throat cancer.
He was appointed MBE in 2001.
Date of Birth: 9 April 1921, Kegworth, Leicestershire, UK
Birth Name: George Bryan
George Bryan, founded Drayton Manor Theme Park, Staffordshire, one of the oldest theme parks in the country and one of the most successful.It was 1949 when Bryan and his wife, Vera, found 80 acres of land for sale at Drayton Manor, near Tamworth, the residue of the former ancestral estate of the Victorian prime minister Sir Robert Peel. The Peel family had gone bankrupt in 1911; most of the house had been pulled down, and during the Second World War the estate had been used as a storage depot by the Army, which left behind a sea of brambles and mounds of rubbish, interspersed with a few Nissen huts.
Both the Bryans came from families in the entertainment business. Vera’s father ran a “California in England” amusement park in Berkshire; while George’s father, William, a decorated First World War pilot, was the country’s biggest inventor and manufacturer of mechanical coin-operated amusement machines. These included “Nudist Colony” (later marketed as “The Live Peep Show”), a small wall-mounted wooden box with a viewing lens and a backflash featuring the legend “NUDIST COLONY They are at work. They are at play. They are alive!” What it did not say was that the “colony” consisted of “naked” ants.
Determined to establish their own business, the Bryans paid £12,000 for the estate. “Much of the ground was swamped and both lakes were blocked up with all kinds of rubbish,” George Bryan recalled. “People in the locality thought we were barmy to want to undertake such a project.”
Though raw materials were difficult to come by due to post-war shortages, Bryan and a group of workmen from his father-in-law’s amusement park set to work digging a boating pool by hand, planting trees, and using the Nissen huts to barter for timber: “At that time there were just no materials available. You didn’t buy nails because you couldn’t. You simply had second-hand timber and you straightened out old nails. And there were no JCBs either — everything was very hard work.”
The next problem was to find attractions for the park, but those too were in short supply: “The only things you could buy were second-hand showman’s stuff from fairgrounds. So we bought old boats from the Thames in London, put little outboard motors on Army tank landing craft and even made rides.”
Finally, after six months’ hard graft, Drayton Manor Park opened to the public in early 1950 as an “Inland Pleasure Resort” with the motto “Family Run for Family Fun”. Its attractions consisted of a restaurant and tea room (in the Nissen huts); three hand-operated rides; six rowing boats; a few pedal cars; a set of second-hand dodgems; and (from 1954) a small zoo courtesy of Mrs Molly Badham, who later opened Twycross Zoo. While Vera took care of the catering, George ran the business side.
Despite the modesty of the attractions, people arrived in droves, and Bryan pioneered the idea of giving visitors free admission to the park if they bought a 1s 6d meal in the tea room. He recalled that when they first opened, people would make their own entertainment: “The very first party we had here was Aston Manor Labour Club, and they brought a towrope with them. People would come here and play games, such as tug-o-war, and have races.” Within a year of opening, Drayton Manor was pulling in about 1,000 visitors a week.
But it soon became clear that he would have to provide more to maintain the park’s appeal. So the tea room was transformed into a function suite and ballroom a venue which attracted performers such as Victor Sylvester, Edmundo Ros, Joe Loss, Kenny Ball and Acker Bilk. A further two function suites were added in later years. Other developments included the Drayton Queen Paddle Steamer, a Dinosaurland and a rollercoaster and log flume. A larger zoo was opened in 1966. From 1982 to 1992 between £500,000 and £1 million was invested annually on new rides.
Today Drayton Manor Theme Park, which is still family-owned, attracts more than one million visitors a year and boasts some of the world’s most terrifying “white-knuckle” rides. These include Maelstrom, a gyro swing which soars to a height of more than 22 metres and revolves at up to 120 degrees; Shockwave, Europe’s only stand-up roller-coaster; Apocalypse, the world’s first stand-up tower drop; and G Force, the only X-Car roller coaster in Britain (an X-Car coaster allows for longer times dangling upside down, using a hip restraint system instead of over-the-shoulder restraints).
Though he had to buy much of the equipment from abroad, Bryan was proud of the fact that he employed only local people, many of whom worked at Drayton Manor long enough to get gold watches.
George Bryan was born on April 9 1921 at Kegworth, Leicestershire, where his father ran his slot machine business, and studied Engineering at Loughborough College (now Loughborough University). His studies were interrupted by the outbreak of war, and he volunteered for the Army. He served in the Warwickshires and then the Royal Army Ordnance, before joining the Royal Engineers, with which he spent several years in the Egyptian desert repairing tanks and armoured cars.
While based at Arborfield in Buckinghamshire in 1942, Bryan met his future wife, Vera Cartlidge. When they married in December that year, during one of George’s vacation leaves, they served up tinned ham and potatoes to their wedding guests and enjoyed a three-night honeymoon at the Bonnington Hotel in London, the highlight of which was a trip to the cinema to see James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy.
After demob, he helped his father-in-law to get his amusement park, which had been closed for the duration of the war, up and running again, but after two years decided to branch out on his own.
A generous philanthropist who supported many local causes, George Bryan was appointed OBE in 2004.
Date of Birth: 21 May 1924, Kennington, London, England, UK
Birth Name: John Ammonds
John Ammonds was one of British television's finest producer/directors specialising in the field of light entertainment. He shaped countless peak-time shows during the so-called "golden age" of TV; and helped Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise and many other major stars reach the summit of their small-screen careers, setting a standard of quality in terms both of content and form that continues to command respect.
Among his distinctive contributions to the success of the Morecambe and Wise show was the droll little dance with which Eric and Ernie ended each performance (Ammonds got the idea from seeing Groucho Marx do something similar in the 1932 film comedy Horse Feathers), the deployment of star guests as unlikely comic stooges, and Eric's use of the close-up to make conspiratorial remarks to the viewers (a conceit that has inspired many imitations). He also ensured, as the writer Eddie Braben's amiably relentless taskmaster ("If you sent him a Christmas card, you'd expect him to send it back for a rewrite"), that the standard of the scripts remained remarkably high.
Ammonds was a calmly efficient organiser and encourager of diverse talents, temperaments and techniques; he could be creative and flexible as well as disciplined and managerial; he possessed an exceptionally sharp eye and ear for detail; and he always acted as though he was the servant of the public rather than of his profession. The most polished of populists, he epitomised the BBC's traditional dictum about "giving viewers what they want but better than they expected it".
He was born in Kennington, London, to working-class parents. His mother, Jessie, one of 16 children, had married his father, John, a watchmaker, in what John junior described as a "shotgun wedding" and he would say later that he remembered only the arguments between this "quite unsuited" couple during his formative years.
It was his father who introduced him to the world of entertainment. As a frustrated actor with a passion for the work of Charles Dickens, Ammonds senior sometimes co-opted his son into the amateur dramatic troupe he had formed, the Dickensian Tabard Players, to tour the workhouses and prisons in and around Southwark. One of the most vivid memories John would retain of these juvenile performances was of the occasion when, aged about 13, he appeared as Oliver Twist in a production staged inside Holloway prison before an audience of "extremely interested" women prisoners: "They were good and started shouting and screaming only after Bill Sikes had killed Nancy."
Although John won a scholarship to a grammar school at Sutton in Surrey, he found much of his education uninspiring, preferring to amuse himself at home by constructing a variety of crystal and cat's whisker radio sets in his father's garden shed. Rather than stay on to complete his Higher School Certificate, he left at the age of 15 and instead sat the entrance examination to become a civil servant at the London county council (mainly because it seemed to promise a job for life and a pension at the end of it). After sampling the job on a part-time basis, however, he decided to try something else.
His career in broadcasting began in 1941, after he sent a speculative letter to the BBC asking if there were any openings for a junior engineer and was invited to apply to become a sound effects operator in the corporation's engineering division. He spent the next 13 years in the BBC's variety department at London, Bristol and Bangor, before moving to Manchester to be a producer. By the mid-1950s, he was responsible for several popular radio shows, working with such popular northern performers as Jimmy Clitheroe, Dave Morris and, in their debut series, Morecambe and Wise.
Moving into television at the end of the decade, John soon won a reputation not only for the competence of his productions but also for his knack of embellishing the image of his stars. It was his idea, for example, to begin Harry Worth's shows with a much-mimicked optical illusion, involving his "levitated" reflection in a shop window, and his idea again to get Val Doonican to croon one song each week sitting in the rocking chair that ended up being his trademark.
It was after he was reunited with Morecambe and Wise in 1968, however, that John achieved his greatest success, proving himself, not only as producer/director but also as an all-purpose creative sounding board, as invaluable to the pair as George Martin had been to the Beatles. He taught them how best to use their talents for television, turning their show into the most admired entertainment of the time.
He left the show in 1974, after eight series, in order to devote more time to his wife, Wyn, whom he had married in 1952 and had then recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. However, he continued to oversee numerous other productions for both the BBC and ITV, including shows featuring Mike Yarwood, Dick Emery and Les Dawson. He was also reunited once again with Morecambe and Wise when they asked him to supervise their final few shows for Thames.
Ammonds was appointed MBE in 1975 for his services to entertainment who retired from broadcasting in 1988. Living in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, he continued to help care for his wife until her death in 2009, and acted as a wise and generous adviser to many writers and documentary makers keen to chronicle the era of television he had graced.