Cliff: 50 years later and still in the limelight

Aug 2018 Cliff: 50 years later and still in the limelight

By Pat Murphy

This is the fourth in a series marking Cliff’s 60th anniversary in the music business. The first three looked at the international dimension of his career and his live performances in the UK, but the focus this time is on the various TV dimensions.

FROM the late 1950s through to the 1980s, Cliff was a regular, sometimes ubiquitous, presence on UK TV. Hopefully, the examples chosen provide a representative sample from those decades.

Oh Boy! (1950s)
Cliff made his TV debut on Saturday, September 13, 1958, on the first ITV network broadcast of Oh Boy! Created by Jack Good, and programmed in direct competition with the BBC’s established 6.5 Special, the new show drove its rival off the air by year-end. In the process, it also transformed the 18-year-old Cliff into Britain’s hottest and most controversial teenage star.

Not everyone was initially impressed. One reviewer dismissed his performance as that of “a sour-faced young man, apparently chewing gum.” But such quibbles didn’t matter. With Move It climbing the charts, and 12 more appearances between mid-September and year end, Cliff’s stock soared. As is often the case, things were helped along by a bout of controversy.

The mass circulation Daily Mirror set the tone by wondering: “Is this boy too sexy for television?” And even the rock ‘n’ roll-friendly New Musical Express jumped on the judgemental bandwagon. In truth, though, it was the sort of publicity that couldn’t be bought. The object of the Mirror’s outrage was the TV persona Good had devised for Cliff. Whereas Good’s wife saw Cliff as a “shy little boy” who was beyond help, Good believed he was “malleable.” So he taught him what to do with his hands, how to engage the camera, how to decompose the performance of a song into a series of movements or poses and – most important of all – how to project ‘a sense of smouldering’.

As the show’s director, Rita Gillespie, subsequently remembered: “Cliff was very inexperienced and he wanted to be told what to do. I loved shooting him. He had the perfect face for television.” By May 30, 1959, and with 20 appearances under his belt, Cliff moved out of Good’s ambit. Svengali was now surplus to requirements.

Sunday Night at the London Palladium (1960s)

Once upon a time, ITV’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium was the most desirable musical platform on British TV. Beamed live from the Palladium’s famous stage, it delivered a huge audience and oodles of prestige.

Cliff made his Palladium TV debut in November 1959, but it was in the 1960s that he really came into his own. Between January 1960 and October 1966, there were no fewer than 12 headlining appearances. They showcased an increasingly polished act that bore little or no resemblance to the persona created for Oh Boy!The January 1960 show underlined how Cliff’s profile had grown post-Living Doll. With a supporting cast that included the legendary American group The Platters, Cliff pulled an estimated 19.5 million viewers. No previous UK light entertainment show had generated numbers that big.

To get a sense of how Cliff’s performance evolved in those years, consider his appearance on November 3, 1963. Backed by the Shadows, he opened
with a spirited version of Da Do Ron Ron before following with the wistful Carnival, a lightly jazzy All I Do Is Dream of You,his recent single It’s All in the Game, and his brand new Don’t Talk to Him. Then, to wrap-up, there was the catchy rocker Dancing Shoes, for which he was joined by a dancer on either side.

While taking care to stay connected to his core audience, it was a set shrewdly calculated to have broad appeal.

It’s Cliff Richard! (1970s)
From a frequency perspective, Cliff’s TV exposure peaked in the first-half of the 1970s. In addition to numerous guest shots, there were ambitious specials – such as Cliff in Scandinavia and Getaway with Cliff (partially filmed in the south of France). And there were various series for the BBC, most notably the weekly iterations of ‘It’s Cliff Richard’ that aired in the early months of 1970-72.

Commentators often sneer at that period, characterising the series content as juvenile humour combined with bland middle-of-theroad music. And perhaps they’re right. But at a time when Cliff’s record sales had dropped significantly, the likes of ‘It’s Cliff Richard’ helped maintain his profile.

The big hits may have (temporarily) become few and far between, but the TV work – regularly viewed by millions – meant he remained a highly
visible public presence.

The shows also attracted an estimable roster of guests. With established names such as Cilla Black, Petula Clark and Roger Whittaker, there were rising stars like Elton John and Olivia Newton-John. Olivia, in fact, became a regular on the 1972 series.

Cliff! (1980s)
Although t a number of documentaries have emerged over the decades, pride of place goes to the BBC’s multi-episode 1981 effort. Organised around four distinct themes, it provided an excellent window into his rebooted career. And befitting his household name status, it was simply called ‘Cliff!

The first episode – Rock and Roll Juvenile – borrowed its title from the 1979 album of the same name and, in addition to looking back at his early days, featured extensive musical extracts from a May. 1981. Rock Special filmed at the Hammersmith Odeon. Phil Everly was a guest, dueting with
Cliff on the Everlys’ classic When Will I Be Loved.

The second episode took a look at Cliff’s religious beliefs and his attempt to create a repertoire fusing those beliefs with rock ‘n’ roll. Again, there were extensive extracts from a specially-filmed concert, this time from the Manchester Apollo in February 1981. Appropriately, it was called ‘Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?’

For the third episode – Travellin’ Light – Cliff was on the road in North America, touring in support of ‘I’m No Hero’. The concert extracts were filmed at New York’s Savoy Theatre on April 2, 1981.

Finally, ‘My Kinda Life’ wrapped things up. The music was mostly from a filmed 40th birthday concert at London’s Apollo Victoria in October 1980, although a couple of items from the Hammersmith Odeon show were folded in. In one of these, Phil Everly was featured again, this time dueting on All I Have to Do Is Dream.

Along with the extensive concert extracts and selected historical clips, the shows featured behind the scenes vignettes plus interviews with Cliff and the likes of Adam Faith, Marty Wilde, Ian Samwell, Jack Good, Pat Boone, Hank Marvin, Bruce Welch, Olivia and many others.

As documentaries go, things don’t get much better. Let’s hope that the new effort planned for later this year stacks up.A native of Ireland, Pat Murphy now lives in Toronto, Canada.