Sunday, 13 October 2013

For Cliff's Sake

I wanted to write something about Cliff Richard, a figure who has bestrode the British entertainment industry like a caramel coloured colossus for my whole life, but, making a start, I realised I actually wanted to write a LOT about Cliff Richard, which was something of a surprise and, no doubt, is beginning to frighten you.

Cliff exudes a strange fascination for me, but you don't actually have to like Cliff to be here. I'm not sure we like him, I'm just a bit obsessed with him and what he represents and, when that happens, everything about a person starts to seem either really great or really weird.

Now seems a good time to do this. It's Cliff's birthday today. He's 162.

The young, sultry, virile, pustulent Cliff chews some straw provocatively
 and ponders how best to smash the system.
'Before Cliff, there was nothing'*
John Lennon

Cliff Richard hit his zenith of personal cool in his breakthrough year, 1958: it’s all been downhill from there, a fifty year descent from surly rocker to national smirking stock. Cliff has frequently claimed to be ‘the most radical rock star there has ever been’ for his strict avoidance of sex and drugs and booze and Godlessness, but this is clearly a load of self-justifying rubbish: Cliff has always been a square, and the fact that he terrified people in the 1950’s for a short time is indicative of how conservative Britain was in those days, rather than how radical he was.

Cliff has an interesting back story (of course he does, he’s a human being). Born in India in 1940, Cliff and his family enjoyed a strange social position as 'servants with servants': they were looked down on as Anglo-Indians by the ruling classes, yet had a very decent life with their own staff as a result of Cliff’s Dad’s job as a catering manager. When they moved back to England in 1948, they found themselves living in significantly reduced circumstances in an awful climate, going from Calcutta to Carshalton, from company villa to council house. No wonder Cliff wanted to go on that ‘Summer Holiday’ so much.

Who knows what the young Cliff felt at his sudden upheaval, or how he was treated by his schoolmates. He must have appeared slightly mysterious, perhaps even exotic. He would almost certainly have had some sort of outsider status. Clever and keen, he stayed on at school until he was sixteen then got a job as a filing clerk at an electric light company. His usually stern Dad bought him a guitar about the same time and, within, two years, Cliff had been discovered and released ‘Move It’, a great record and a number two hit.

A mere four singles later he had his first number one with the noticeably softer and safer Lionel Bart song ‘Livin’ Doll’, which set the scene for the rest of his career. The new Cliff would be hugely successful, of course, but he would no longer pose any kind of threat or opposition: his Elvis sneer was replaced by a smile, his jeans by a suit, his unruly hair tidied up and a straw boater placed upon it. His teenage reign of terror was over.

Cliff gazes into the future, and sees a wet day at a tennis tournament.
The sudden transition from rocker to entertainer wasn’t Cliff’s fault, though. There was simply no mechanism in the late fifties that could have been called a rock and roll industry – upcoming music stars had to move almost immediately into the mainstream if they were to stay popular, and the mainstream in 1959 was Tin Pan Alley, The London Palladium and Panto. So, inevitably, Cliff became Mr. Showbiz, and whether he was driving a bus to Athens with frequent stops for mediocre songs, releasing yet another Granny Clapper with an Oompah solo, or merely showing up Britain at the Eurovision, he was, in rock and roll terms at least, very old hat, out of touch. Just as Beatlemania was hitting big and British beat stars were tearing the US apart, Cliff found God. By 1967, the most psychedelic year in world history, Cliff was making films with the Billy Graham Organisation and going out with Mary Whitehouse.

Cliff & Mary.

Cliff and his Mum, simply for comparison.
And again, in even scarier times (1987).

The next thirty years of his career is characterised by a brilliantly squiggly line, with a sharp jag for the occasional surprise (the rather good falsetto he debuted during the disco years; his skill on a pair of rollerskates; his beard in 'Heathcliff: The Musical) and taking in triumphs, hits, near misses, flops and a singalong at a rained out Wimbledon that has mentally prepared me for the end of the world. The truth is, of course, that up, down or rotating slowly whilst gesturing meaningfully with his wrinkly hands, Cliff simply never goes away, ever. He even ushered in the new millennium with one of the worst records ever made, an awful hybrid of 'Auld Lang Syne' and 'The Lords Prayer'. God blushed and tried not to make eye contact.  

Eventually, frustrated industry executives decided to retire him by force, no longer playing his records or inviting him onto things, a gutless coup. As a mainly home grown phenomenon, Cliff had few places to go territory-wise when his UK exposure was cut off (although he was surprisingly big in Norway), so he shuffled off to Portugal to make wine, seethe and plan his next move. He’s still going, of course: at least one tour a year, repackaged compilations and pointless albums of covers, horrible calendars featuring him cuddling up to a dolphin or wearing dungarees and holding a rake. Dyed, plucked, botoxed, bitter and in exile, his appeal is now more niche than ever but, into his seventh decade in the business, he endures. He's out there somewhere, right now. He never sleeps; he plays tennis until three in the morning and then climbs the steps of an abandoned tower and glares across the sea to where he thinks the UK is. It is clear that Cliff cannot be killed by conventional means.  
* Lennon may have been talking about Elvis.

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