I have never been a fan of summer.
As a child, I felt an inherent sadness in all things associated with that time: the smell of freshly cut grass, the tide going out at the end of a day at the seaside, brushing the last of the sand from between my toes.
My grandfather died in June, and I recall the visits to the hospital and the starkness of the greenery at Cefn Mably hospital that felt like a mockery of the shadows surrounding his bedside. I remember the darkness of his bedroom at the Old Globe pub he ran with my grandmother in Rogerstone; the sticky ring of a half drunk Lucozade bottle the only small light on his bedside table.
We are now in August, and I am thinking that I spent most of this July in tears. I saw two friends lose their sons in tragic circumstances and I cannot begin to imagine their pain. This morning, I woke to the news that TV legend Cilla Black has died, and I am in tears again.
I know that none of these people are close family members, but as I wrote in my last blog, we have, and should value, our ability to empathise with others. Stripped of all material possessions, we are basically the same: humans with common emotions, the most important being the capacity to love.
I met Cilla when I started out as a TV critic in the mid-Eighties. She was the presenter of Blind Date, and my visit to a recording was the first time I had ever visited a set. I was absurdly excited. Her energy and ability to light up a room were breathtaking. She was funny, smart, and had the audience in the palm of her hand from the outset.
She died in her villa in Marbella, which was where I last saw her. We had a mutual friend in Andy Anderson, an astonishingly talented singer who performed in local bars and who also, sadly, died a few months back. Cilla had gathered a group together, and we sat in her garden, Andy singing on his guitar, drinking Cilla’s champagne from the bar in her living room. She was a very generous host and the evening was, as others had been before, full of laughter.
It nearly wasn’t. She had swallowed one of the larger hors d’ouevres and it had become stuck in her throat. Fortunately, paramedics were not required.
It was impossible to find a taxi by the time the party ended, and Cilla kindly offered to let me stay over in “Cliff’s room” (Cliff Richard was a very close friend). I joked that I would always be able to say that I had slept in Cliff’s bed. She adored him and I know that they spent many great times together. She was also passionately loyal to him during the allegations that surfaced about his private life.
She was loyal to all her friends. She was especially fond of Paul O’Grady, to whom she had become close after he wrote to her following Bobby’s death. Paul is as exhilarating off screen as he is on, and one of the most naturally funny people I have ever met. It’s not hard to see why she would have embraced his company.
On the last night I saw her, we talked for a couple of hours after everyone left, and she was, as always, wonderful company. She was both interesting and interested, and she gave me sound advice about decisions I was trying to make. Her love for her husband, Bobby, who died in 1999, was always central to her life, and she spoke of him often, as she did her children, especially her son Robert, who became her manager.
I confess to feeling completely in awe of the woman whose music I grew up with, and whose shows were (and still are) the best that Saturday night entertainment had to offer. She was the top of her tree in two of the most difficult industries in the world to conquer – especially for women. She set the bar high for everyone who followed, and she was tough and ambitious, as the recent ITV three-parter, Cilla, showed.
Sheridan Smith delivered an extraordinary performance as the young woman from a working class Liverpool background who made it to the top of the charts. I am glad Cilla got to see it.
My friends’ sons were in their late twenties when they died; Cilla was 72 – which, by today’s standards, is still young. Had she been 100, I would still feel sad. She was a part of my history and also of TV history.
I like to think of her knocking on the pearly gates with the words “Surprise, surprise, it’s Cilla ’ere.”