I first saw Cliff Richard in concert when I was 16. It was in 1978, I think, in London. It was the first pop concert I had ever been to. His 75 Greatest Hits album had become a number 1 bestseller and his Green Light LP had been released. I was hooked. I was already a fan, having watched his Saturday night TV show and having been bewitched by ‘Devil Woman’ and ‘Miss You Nights’. Over the years I’ve seen Cliff or Cliff and the Shadows in concert on more than a dozen occasions. I have virtually every song he’s ever sung on my phone – 1503 at the last count.
But if you had told me then, that 45 years later, I’d be appearing with him on stage for three nights at the Hammersmith Apollo, I’d have laughed in your face. But that’s just what happened this weekend. And it turned out to be one the best weekends of my life. This is why.
It was in early March. I was in bed in my Washington DC hotel flicking through emails on my phone. One email stood out. It was from Cliff Richard's office.
"Can I call you urgently?" asked his PA. What on earth could this be about, I wondered to myself.
As the day of the first concert approached, I’ll admit I was quite nervous. I was dreaming about it. I had sleepless nights. I wasn’t nervous about appearing in front of a large audience, it was more about asking the wrong questions, or drying up. I’d interviewed Cliff a couple of times, but what if we didn’t hit it off? I even got to the stage of worrying about falling off the stage again. That’s how ridiculous it got. My brain was working overtime.
On Thursday night I realized I’d done something very stupid, and hadn’t cancelled my weekly appearance on Good Morning Britain, for which I have to get up at 5.10am. Not only that, I had compounded the error by organising to record four KINGS & QUEENS podcasts during the day, culminating with an hour long recording on Henry VIII with David Starkey. No time for my usual Friday afternoon nap!
Four o’clock soon came along and off I headed to the Apollo. I suspect some people think singers turn up to the venue a few minutes before they go on stage. Wrong. Each day, Cliff was there before 4pm to rehearse and do sound checks. I arrived just before 5pm to find that no one on the stage door seemed to know who I was. All was soon OK and I was shown to my dressing room. What do I do now, I thought. I decided to counter my normal shyness (yes, honestly) and go downstairs where I met Tania who gave me my ACCESS ALL AREAS pass. Somehow that made me feel a proper part of it all. She then took me down to the backstage area. Cliff was just finishing rehearsing. He saw me in the wings and beckoned me out to the stage and greeted me with a big hug and said how pleased he was I was doing it. Right from the start, the conversation flowed really easily. I was then introduced to some of the band members and the backstage crew, many of whom had been with Cliff for years or even decades. I was wondering what to expect and whether I’d be accepted. I needn’t have worried. Keith, Cliff’s musical director, and Silas and Tony, his two security people made me feel really at home. Tania, Cliff’s PA was busy organizing things but always had time for me and I never felt I was being a nuisance.
We then went to the catering area and spent an hour. I sat with Cliff, Tania and Silas and the conversation flowed very freely. Cliff is an avid LBC listener and wanted to know all the gossip and how it all works. He’s also started listening to podcasts so Tania subscribed him to FOR THE MANY.
At 6.30 we dispersed to get changed. I went up to my dressing room (the one usually used by understudies!). I decided to wear my crimson suit, which I usually only wear for my Edinburgh Fringe shows. Alison, Cliff’s wardrobe manager, offered to press my suit and shirt. She’s been with him for many years and is wonderful at her job, and nothing was too much trouble for her.
The show started at 7.45pm but each night I would go up to the balcony where my guests were sitting, to say hello. I was most amused that on each occasion I was accompanied by Tony, Cliff’s bodyguard in case I got mobbed! As if! Well, to be fair, there was a bit of it on the last night when I went out into the stalls to see Jane Garvey, Shelagh Fogarty and her sister Ann. And I won’t pretend I didn’t enjoy it just a little!
It was also lovely to meet members of Cliff’s family, including his sister Joan. It was also nice to have a chat with Cherie Blair, who I hadn’t seen since I interviewed her for TOTAL POLITICS in 2011 or thereabouts.
Each night Cliff sang 5 songs from the early years, including Summer Holiday and Living Doll. I was sitting in the wings with the on-stage sound guys and the stage manager, Del Haggar, who has been with Cliff for 39 years. My cue to go on stage was when Cliff finished singing Bachelor Boy. Del handed me the microphone and a copy of Cliff’s book. The voice of God then introduced me and on I went!
Strangely, even though there were 3,600 people there, I wasn’t at all nervous. I climbed onto the stool, with Cliff pretending to help and turning to the audience and saying: “I always like to help the elderly”. And off we went.
I started by asking him if he remembered a song from his ‘Small Corners’ album, ‘I’ve got news for you’. I even sang the title line! I then told him the news it had just been revealed that his new album ‘Cliff with Strings – My Kinda Life’ had reached number five in the charts. He had become the first artist to achieve a top 5 album in eight consecutive decades. The audience went wild. We soon established a rapport and the conversation flowed very naturally. And I really wanted it to be a conversation rather than an interview.
I knew there was a significant number of the audience who were attending more than one performance. In fact, some were going to every single one, so I tried not to ask the same questions each night. And I tried not to ask the same questions Sir Tim Rice had asked on the previous three nights.
I tried to let Cliff speak without interrupting too much, as I was well aware that the audience were there to listen to him, not me. Indeed, I suspect many of them were quite sceptical about whether the chat format would work. Judging from the feedback on the night and also on his official Facebook group, it really did.
I then had a second stint in the middle of the second half, where I came on after ‘Miss you Nights’. This is not only my favourite Cliff song, but my favourite song of all time by any artist. He sang it brilliantly, alongside two of his backing singers, David Luke and Tim Bonser. Not many singers would give the prominence to their backing singers and their band that Cliff does. David and Tim have been singing with Cliff for ten years and clearly worship him. The whole band were incredibly friendly and each night I would spend the interval with them in their room. They were all LBC listeners too! I remember on the first night, as I was heading upstairs, I just said “Lads. Miss you Nights. Don’t fuck it up”. If the ice hadn’t already been broken, that certainly did it.
The second half stint also lasted 15 minutes. Each time, the 15 minutes went by in a flash. After 13 minutes the sound engineer JJ gave me a two minute warning in my ear. I think I hit the 15 minutes dead on each time.
I know when I get things right and get things wrong, and when I came off stage for the second time on the first night I was pretty sure it had gone well. The comments and pats on the back from the crew and Tania confirmed it. And when Cliff came off at the end of the show he made a beeline for me and gave me a big hug. Phew.
And then we did it all again the next day, Saturday. I had two sets of friends in the audience this time. John and Chrissie Parry had been with me to two Cliff concerts in the past, while Dan Bryce was a Cliff newbie. Dan is 31 and took his Nan, Hazel, who had never been to London before, let alone to a Cliff concert. But she’s a massive Cliff fan. I gave them a shoutout when I was on stage and apparently she instantly burst into tears. A member of Cliff’s family turned round and asked: “Are you Hazel?” It made her day, I think, and she is still talking about the whole evening days later.
After the show, Cliff and I went out to dinner with his two security guys, Silas and Tony, at the hotel he was staying at. Driving out of the Apollo carpark was quite an experience, believe me. There were literally hundreds of women outside, most of whom were in a state of high excitement, screaming his name. They didn’t seem to have any regard for their own personal safety and the driver did very well not to run over any of their feet. We had one of the best meals I have ever had, both in terms of quality of food and company. I eventually left at 1.30am to go to a hotel in the Olympic Park, as I was going to see West Ham on Sunday afternoon, before heading back to the Apollo.
I got there a little late, just after 5pm. Cliff was just finishing his soundcheck. Someone must have told him where I’d been and what the result was. He bounded over to me and said: “You must be very happy,” he exclaimed. I told him that West Ham beating Nottingham Forest 3-2 only emphasized that this was one of the best weekends of my life. He roared with laughter.
That night my radio friends and colleagues Shelagh Fogarty and Jane Garvey were my guests. Shelagh brought along her sister, Ann – a genuine Cliff fan. When I went out to say hello to them half an hour before the concert started. I’d barely got a word out before a stream of women approached me to say how much they were loving the chat sections with Cliff.
In the second chat I talked about how friendly Cliff’s colleagues had been, what a brilliant band he had and how wonderful his support staff were.
I’d like to thank Malcolm, Cliff’s manager and Tania, his PA for inviting me to host the chats, and having confidence in me. I hope I repaid that confidence. Thanks to the brilliantly efficient Roger Searle, Cliff’s tour manager for making everything run so smoothly logistically.
Alison Goode, had the unique talent as Cliff’s Wardrobe manager of making me look better than I really am, and was an absolute pleasure to deal with. Del Jones lit the stage beautifully, Stage Tech’s Simon Grocott and Stuart Sawney doing teccie stuff, Sarah Thornton fed us all so well, while JJ James and Gavin Tempany ensured Cliff sounded brilliantly and for once on stage I had no microphone issues, which I so often do!
Cliff’s band and crew have all been with him for the long term, and that tells you a lot. His musical director Keith Harman, it turns out, lives near me in Kent and it was lovely to meet his wife, who, it turned out is a big fan of my LBC show! As I said above, Keith made me feel so welcome and I’ll always be grateful for the encouragement he gave me. He’s been with Cliff for nearly 30 years and I can see why. He leads a great band with Ian West on drums, Don Richardson on bass guitar, Bobby Harrison on guitar and David Luke and Tim Bonser on backing vocals.
At the end of my final chat with Cliff I told him that I had once spent 5 minutes talking to HM The Queen, but appearing with him on stage this weekend meant even more to me than that. It sounds yucky as I write this, but the audience completely understood what I was saying. They understood because they knew I was one of them. Not a Johnny come lately Cliff fan, but someone who had been with him on his journey for 50 years. I got to share a stage with my musical hero. Not many people get to do that, and the reason I’ve written about it in so much detail here is because I want to remember every single detail for years to come.
And then it was all over. Back to life, back to reality. I remember being in a couple of musicals at university and that feeling of total deflation after the final performance. It’s similar to the day after polling day in a general election. I said goodbye to Cliff and the team and left feeling I’d made a lot of new friends.
It really was one of the best weekends of my life.