Cilla Black’s son Robert Willis spoke to Pauline Taylor ahead of the Scottish run of his new musical telling the story of his mother’s extraordinary career
She was an icon of the swinging sixties who became the undisputed queen of Saturday night television. Cilla Black, singer and game show entertainer weaved her way into the nation’s heart with her girl next door appeal and affable personality.
The story of her early years as a nervous young performer in Liverpool’s famous Cavern Club was told in a recent TV dramatisation and now it features in a stage show that comes to Edinburgh this week.
The show stays close to the 2014 three-parter written by Jeff Pope (The Moorside, Philomena, From The Cradle To The Grave, Mrs Biggs), though sadly Cilla did not survive to see it performed.
Her son and former manager Robert Willis is the executive producer of Cilla the Musical, a project that has been in discussion for three years.
“We first had the idea for the story following the TV drama, which had great critical appraise,” he says, speaking ahead of its Scottish run.
To capture the story from Scotland Road, known locally as Scotty Road, to the Ed Sullivan show, writer Pope penned the television screenplay with Sheridan Smith starring as Cilla. It was shown a year after Cilla had celebrated her 50th anniversary in show business.
“I told Jeff how my mum and dad got together and we worked closely and became good friends. The love story is at the centre of it, they were so young and kept splitting up and getting back together,” says R0bert.
“My mum had this driving ambition and my dad encouraged her. He was a funny guy too, and they had to overcome this Catholic-Protestant thing that was very strong at the time in Liverpool and could break up families. It’s hard to believe now.”
Explaining how the musical came about, he says: “While we were filming in the Cavern and watching Sheridan Smith on the stage and then, looking at the edits, we thought this would make a great stage show.”
Cilla loved the TV version and was excited about the prospect of a stage version. Unfortunately she didn’t live to see it come to fruition and died suddenly in 2015 at the age of 72 after a fall at her home in Estepona.
“When mum died everything went on hold for a year. We had to deal with our circumstances and had to have time to grieve.”
Then last year Robert sat down with prolific theatre producer Bill Kenwright to talk about bringing the show to the stage.
“Bill is the Chairman of Everton and I am a big Liverpool fan so when we got together again to discuss the project we just talked about football for two and half hours. Then we got talking about staging the show and got very excited about it.”
Sheridan Smith was targeted to reprise the lead role When Cilla the Musical finally went into planning last year, but she was not available as she was working on Funny Girl.
Robert, together with Pope, Kenwright, co-producer Laurie Mansfield, and co-director Bob Tomson, set off on a nationwide search for the next Cilla.
The team auditioned more than 4,000 girls in Liverpool, London, Birmingham and Edinburgh.
Following this extensive search 28 year-old Kara Lily Hayworth was chosen. Past credits include Annie, Moulin Rouge and an appearance on the X Factor.
Kara, originally from Watford, queued for four hours outside the open auditions at London’s Dominion Theatre and made it through to second auditions at the Cavern Club before securing the part.
Co-incidentally Kara a graduate of the Central School of Speech and Drama had met Cilla when she was 10 years old and playing Annie alongside Cilla’s great friend Paul O’Grady as Miss Hannigan.
Robert says: “Mum spoke to Kara and gave her sage advice and told her it’s a tough business but to hang in there.
“Kara is a great fit for the part. She has a very powerful and moving stage presence. There was just something about her that stood out and she’s the same height as my mum, same proportions in her build, arms and legs and of course she has a fantastic voice.”
Cilla Black broke many boundaries by performing alongside the Beatles and then becoming Britain’s youngest female presenter of her own eponymous show and the highest paid woman on TV.
It was Cilla’s singing success that led to her TV career which led on to Blind Date and Surprise Surprise.
“Her TV legacy is huge. She was incredibly successful,” says Robert . “There was no-one like her and there won’t be anyone like her again.”
But it is her early life that is the stuff of showbiz dreams in an era that pre-dated reality talent shows.
There’s an authenticity to her breakthrough that almost mocks today’s obsession with finding new talent.
It’s the incredible journey from Scotland Road to the top of the sixties hit parade with two number ones in 1964.
Working in a typing pool and as cloakroom girl at the Cavern, everyone’s favourite girl next door had many supporters pushing her into the limelight, not least the former Beatle John Lennon who set up an initial audition with the group’s manager Brian Epstein.
Robert says: “She was close friends with Ringo Starr and used to do his mum’s hair, but it was John Lennon who told her to have a go at singing on stage and he encouraged her audition with Brian Epstein. They were all just kids who ran around together and loved rock ‘n’ roll.”
Her initial audition at the Cavern Club was unsuccessful.
“She was just so nervous,” Robert explains, “but it was at the Blue Angel Club nine months later Brian heard her sing again and asked her why she didn’t perform like that the first time.”
In her wildest dreams Cilla would never have imagined that she would have 11 top ten hits and be a millionaire before the age of 25.
At the height of her singles success, John Lennon told her Elvis Presley had You’re My World playing on repeat on his personal jukebox at Gracelands.
Robert says: “She was so thrilled about that. She just loved the music and she wanted to be famous from a very young age. Music was changing the world and she wanted to be part of that. She ran around with a bunch of kids who all idolised Chuck Berry, Little Richard and they were all super fans of Elvis.
“She was so delighted when she heard that Elvis was playing her music and regretted that she never got to meet him.”
‘She loved Liverpool till the day she died’
It’s been a busy year for the Willis family. Eight months ago Robert and his brothers Ben and Jack were delighted when Malcolm Kennedy the mayor of Liverpool invited them back to where it all began to unveil a commemorative statue of Cilla outside the Cavern club.
“Whenever we went back to Liverpool mum would always say the building is the same but they have moved the entrance.
“So we made sure the statue was placed outside the original entrance on Matthews Street and it’s great to see it from the top of the street and to see people photographing it.
“She loved Liverpool until the day she died. She also loved Scotland where we had many holidays as kids. Scots and Liverpudlians are very similar.
“That day in Liverpool was incredibly comforting for us. It was a very emotional day and we were so touched by the response from the people of Liverpool.”
When Cilla’s husband and manager Bobby died in 1999, Robert took over as his mum’s manager.
“I feel incredibly fortunate to have had her as my mother. She had such a force of personality. She was always herself and very funny. My dad was too. They were very much equals.”
Cilla – the Musical will be at the Playhouse, Edinburgh from Tuesday 19 until Saturday 23 September