Twelve days into rehearsals and it’s clear the show is coming together. The singer bursts into hit after hit, all the while moving non-stop to the carefully choreographed routines, markings set out on the mock stage so he and his band know precisely where they need to be.
Watching him in action, it’s hard to remember that Sir Cliff Richard is 80: he celebrates his 81st birthday later this month. He has the energy of a man half his years, easily able to keep up with his younger band members throughout the nearly two-hour-long set.
But none of the fans attending his 13-night tour, which starts next Thursday in Sheffield, will be left in any doubt about his age. It is, after all, Sir Cliff’s Great 80 Tour, postponed from last year, when Covid restrictions meant it had to be cancelled.
Unlike on previous tours, no family, close friends or fans will be allowed to meet Sir Cliff backstage
Twelve months on, the power of the pandemic to derail live entertainment is still an issue, as a slew of West End shows know all too well. And so, as one of his management team puts it: ‘We are taking no chances’.
The result is that, unlike on previous tours, no family, close friends or fans will be allowed to meet Sir Cliff backstage.
There will also be no reception at London’s Royal Albert Hall (where he is doing four shows), which had become ‘the norm’ after his performances there each year. To deter his famously devoted fans, he has even been rehearsing in a secret location outside London. I am privileged to be given exclusive behind-the-scenes access.
As to vaccines, there is no room for doubt there either, in contrast to the row over unvaccinated dancers that has engulfed Strictly Come Dancing. Sir Cliff has been triple vaccinated and all members of his backstage team and band are jabbed, too.
Sir Cliff says: ‘I’ve never undertaken a tour like this before — never! When you think, all of us in our lifetime, we’ve never had to face anything like this.
‘It really is me, though, who has to be careful, because even though I’ve been triple-vaccinated, you can still carry that virus and it can make you a bit sick.
‘Now if I get sick, then the whole darn thing’s off. So the last thing I want is for me to be the reason why we cancel something. So I am going to be very careful.
He adds: ‘My band have all been vaccinated and we’re tested regularly. So we are sure that we’ll get through it and the public won’t notice anything different.
‘I am very fortunate, in that not only do we audition people because they are good players, but somehow or other I’ve ended up with people who feel like family. And I like that. We laugh together, we eat together, we’re in bars together. Although bars we can’t do this year.’
Having had to wait two years to be back doing what he loves doing — Sir Cliff’s last concerts were in the summer of 2019 — he is raring to go.
‘It feels absolutely fantastic to be back after such a long break,’ he says. ‘We were all ready to go last October. We’d arranged everything and started promoting everything.’
As to vaccines, there is no room for doubt there either, in contrast to the row over unvaccinated dancers that has engulfed Strictly Come Dancing. Sir Cliff has been triple vaccinated and all members of his backstage team and band are jabbed, too
Needing to postpone everything came as a horrible shock. ‘But it wasn’t just my shows,’ says Sir Cliff. ‘The whole world has had to change because of the pandemic. So we just had to bite the bullet and postpone things — and hope and pray it could happen this year.
‘Our prayers are answered because we’re all ready to go. My band is so excited — they couldn’t wait to get going, either. I think the fans will enjoy what we’re planning to do.
‘We’re doing a great mixture of stuff but the main thing is to get it all right, which is what we’re doing at the moment at rehearsals.’
As a perk of his age — or maybe a perk of having more than six decades of performing experience and a singing voice to protect — Sir Cliff is allowed to arrive a little later for rehearsals. The band call is usually at 10am but Sir Cliff doesn’t start until 11.30.
‘That means I can have a bit of a lazy morning,’ he says, with a grin. ‘Then I join the band and we can start going through things.
‘I think it’s important for me, anyway, because you can play an instrument for hours but you can’t sing for hours. They’re very good. They’re very careful with me. And so far, so good.
‘This is the twelfth day of rehearsals and we’ve only had two days off in that time to give everyone a break.’
Having been famous almost since he started out at 17, I wonder if his career still gives him the same buzz after all these years.
But there is no hesitation as he answers: ‘Oh yes. It comes to a head when I walk into a rehearsal room and then you get up and the band are playing and you’re singing and you’re thinking: “My God, this is fantastic.” ’
He adds: ‘We talk about it for a long time before we rehearse. I’ve pretty well been with the same band for the past few years and we know they can do it. But it’s when you hear them and you start singing the stuff, that’s when the buzz really comes to you.’
He is particularly excited that the new tour will feature the priceless red Fender Stratocaster that Sir Cliff bought for Hank Marvin to play when he was in The Shadows in the late Fifties. The first Stratocaster to be imported into Britain, it is a piece of rock history.
Sir Cliff says: ‘I think the public will find it interesting that this beautiful guitar, which became a rock ’n’ roll symbol, still plays so well.’
Today, Sir Cliff has arrived for rehearsals in black jeans and a check shirt. He works hard to maintain his svelte shape — he still takes the same shirt size —by watching his diet and following a regimen called Eat Right 4 Your Type, which tailors your diet to your blood type. This, he says, has been professionally devised for him and he combines it with regular games of tennis (though Covid presented challenges with this).
Sir Cliff spent lockdown at his home in Barbados, which has a swimming pool and tennis court.
‘Fortunately, the Prime Minister [of Barbados] brought in restrictions very quickly and that’s why the country has been on the green list for so long. But the coach I play tennis with was only allowed to work three days a week because of Covid restrictions, so I booked my sessions in quickly.
‘We are the lucky ones. I have a big house, I could walk in the two-acre garden. So it wasn’t so bad for me but my heart burns for people who live in apartments, especially if they have children. It must have been really tough for them.’
Thanks to his healthy lifestyle — and a measure of luck — Sir Cliff can still truthfully say he has only ever had one night in hospital.
‘I had to have my gall bladder removed about three years ago,’ he says. ‘I feel I’ve been blessed with good health. My father died fairly young [from complications of thrombosis]. I was in my 20s, he was in his 50s. But my mother was healthy, so there may have been a gene that’s come through.
‘I must be doing something right because I still feel good. I’m never going to be able to do what I did in my 20s and 30s. When I look at some of the videos, I dashed around like a dancing maniac! I now have an excuse not to do that. I just say: “I want to look like a dignified 80-year-old rocker!” ’
Laughing, he continues: ‘I always tell myself, it was so hidden within me that even I didn’t know I would eventually be prancing around with dancers and be able to play a bit of guitar and act.
‘I had to find it as we went along. I don’t regret anything but if I was starting again, I would have loved for my parents to be able to afford to send me to a theatrical school.’
The only time there is an element of sadness in his voice is when he thinks of the friends he has lost in recent years. Among them were Cilla Black, who died in 2015, and Una Stubbs, who starred with him in the 1963 film Summer Holiday, who died in August.
In fact, it was Una and the actor Melvyn Hayes (later best-known as ‘Gunner Gloria’ in It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum) who encouraged Sir Cliff to taste wine for the first time when they were relaxing on a beach at the end of a day’s filming. Years later, he bought his own vineyard in Portugal.
There were rumours that Una and Sir Cliff dated afterwards — and she starred in his television series in the 1960s — but they were only ever good friends.
‘The thing with Una is, I had no idea she’d been ill,’ he says. ‘Una was one of those people that . . . we sometimes didn’t meet for three or four years — but whenever we did see each other, it was like we’d just finished Summer Holiday.
‘It was always the same. I always loved her; she was just the most wonderful person. She was only three or four years older than me.
‘She was very easy to be with, a gorgeous woman, a great character and very talented. So yes, her family are obviously going to miss her greatly. I still think about her and I guess I’ll always be thinking about her.’
And he says he still misses Cilla, too. ‘Do you forget? No way. Somebody once said “if you’ve lost people you love, then talk about them”. Cilla is alive now because we’ve been talking about her. She is still part of me.’
Although he has enjoyed many winters at his Barbados estate, as part of a long-term plan to downsize, he put the property up for sale last year
But it’s the future that Sir Cliff is mainly focusing on right now — the tour and beyond.
Although he has enjoyed many winters at his Barbados estate, as part of a long-term plan to downsize, he put the property up for sale last year.
The estate — Coral Sundown — served as a wonderful retreat for him: ‘I spend my whole life with the public, so I just wanted my home to be unobtainable. At least there I’m away from prying eyes. I can relax and enjoy the fantastic views. It’s kind of nice to have a normal lifestyle.’
But even though it is time to move on, he won’t be deserting Barbados — he loves it too much. Instead, he will probably have a smaller property built on the island.
He is still blessed with a fine voice, and there are no thoughts of retirement: ‘Not only do I find it hard to believe that my career has spanned this length of time, but also that I still get the chance to do the thing I love best.’
It looks as if Sir Cliff will be taking that opportunity for many years yet.