Christmas at Cilla Black’s magnificent red-brick mansion was always a bustling, rumbustious family affair in which the much-loved entertainer would get up at dawn and don her festive apron to prepare a traditional turkey feast before collapsing in front of the television.
But this year will be a much quieter celebration for her sons Robert, Ben and Jack, who are spending their first Christmas away from The Grove, the ten-bedroom home where they grew up and where their mother held court.
Cilla, who died suddenly after a fall at her Spanish villa in 2015 aged 72, may have travelled a long way from her early days in a flat above a barber’s shop in Liverpool, but her homely, traditional childhood always remained in her heart.
Cilla’s son Robert Willis revealed that he takes comfort from knowing that his mother would did not have to endure the often painful decline that comes with ill-health and old age
Every December she would decorate the house in Denham, Buckinghamshire, to within an inch of its life. For her, Christmas Day was living proof that all her hard work had been worthwhile.
‘My mother loved Christmas and went big on the Christmas decorations – the full works,’ says her eldest son Robert, 47, who took over from his late father Bobby as Cilla’s manager.
‘She cooked the turkey, she would do the roast potatoes, all the vegetables and do all the trimmings. She had lots of showbusiness friends around the village and they would often pop in around the festive season.
‘But Christmas Day was very much just a family-only thing. In the evening we’d watch TV.
‘I remember as a child when The Cilla Show was on, my parents would be, “Oh, your mum’s on the telly”, but we wanted to watch Planet Of The Apes on the other side and sneaked off into a different room.
It has been two years since Robert (left, with his mother in 2014 and right as a child with his father Bobby Willis) and his brothers lost their mother. ‘It’s been a difficult time, but we’ve made the best of it as a family,’ he admits.
Memories: The family home in Buckinghamshire. This year will be a much quieter celebration for her sons Robert, Ben and Jack, who are spending their first Christmas away from The Grove, the ten-bedroom home where they grew up and where their mother held court
‘We’d have people drop by on Boxing Day and Mum would always have a long chat with her good friend Paul O’Grady. He’d be down in Kent doing his thing and they’d always compare Christmases.’
Robert adds: ‘This year will be very different. The house has been sold. We had to, it’s such a big place – and my brothers and all the rest of the family are coming to my house for Christmas instead.
‘It’s sad to part with the home where we grew up, but it had to happen. The Grove was a big estate that cost a lot to run. It had 17 acres of gardens, a swimming pool, a tennis court and big heating bills.
‘Our housekeeper and gardener lived in a cottage there and we were able to make sure that they could retire financially. We gave them a percentage of the house sale.’
It has been two years since Robert and his brothers lost their mother. ‘It’s been a difficult time, but we’ve made the best of it as a family,’ he admits.
‘My brothers, myself and my wife and kids are very close. The thing is, I miss her. I miss talking to her and having a laugh with her.’
Robert’s life was turned upside down when his mother died at her holiday home in Estepona in August 2015. He had left her sipping champagne and watching television one afternoon while he went shopping.
When he returned, he knocked on her bedroom door and, hearing no reply, assumed she was sleeping.
A glimpse up to her private terrace that led from her bedroom, however, revealed the outside door was open and he grew concerned. After receiving no answer, he eventually barged open the bedroom door and found his mother dead. It was, understandably, ‘an awful, terrible shock’.
‘My mother loved Christmas and went big on the Christmas decorations – the full works,’ says her eldest son Robert, 47, pictured aged three with his parents
Cilla had got up from a sunlounger, lost her balance and fallen, hitting her head. She lost consciousness and subsequently suffered a stroke.
Robert was left to break the news to his two younger brothers, who caught the next plane out to Spain. Within hours the family was overwhelmed by tributes.
Among those who wrote in sympathy were Sir Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Sheridan Smith, her lifelong friend Jimmy Tarbuck, and the then Prime Minister David Cameron.
Robert helped plan Cilla’s star-studded funeral in Liverpool – Cliff Richard sang and Paul O’Grady read the eulogy – and the unveiling of her statue outside The Cavern, the famous club where The Beatles were discovered and where Cilla was transformed from cloakroom assistant into an international star.
But if there’s one consolation Robert takes from losing his mother so suddenly, it’s that she didn’t have to endure the often painful decline that comes with ill-health and old age.
For, unknown to many of her fans, Cilla had suffered a series of painful operations before her death and lived in fear of dying in pain like her mother Priscilla Blythen, who suffered a slow, painful death.
In her own later years, Cilla’s joie de vivre and ebullient persona masked increasing physical discomfort and even deafness.
‘God bless her, she was great fun,’ says Robert. ‘I’m glad that she didn’t have to suffer the indignities of age because I don’t think she liked getting old. Few people do, but she felt it more than most.
It has been two years since Robert and his brothers lost their mother. ‘It’s been a difficult time, but we’ve made the best of it as a family,’ he admits. Robert is pictured as a 10-day-old baby
‘For example, most women, once they hit a certain age, find they can’t wear high heels. That was a major deal for my mum. She hated the thought that she would have to wear flat shoes.
‘She wanted to go on doing what she wanted to do. She’d never had to diet, so she was suddenly having to do certain things just to maintain the way she lived. She was a bit offended by that. She was someone who lived life fully – the amount of shows she did was incredible – but she wasn’t used to compromise.
‘She was in a great deal of pain after developing arthritis in her right hand, which meant she had to have a bone removed below her thumb and forefinger.
‘It affected her ability to grip and although the operation would do the trick, she resented the nine months it would take to heal.
unknown to many of her fans, Cilla had suffered a series of painful operations before her death and lived in fear of dying in pain like her mother Priscilla Blythen, who suffered a slow, painful death. The star is pictured with 10-day-old Robert
‘In her heart and in her head, she was incredibly young so I think she found it all difficult.
‘Then it was discovered she had a form of arthritis in one knee. She managed to avoid a knee replacement by the use of medication, but she had stoically put up with it for too long which resulted in quite a bit of muscle wastage. In truth, she wasn’t the best patient.’
Cilla was also going deaf but wouldn’t wear a hearing aid. ‘She couldn’t be bothered with them,’ says Robert. ‘Her solution was to turn up the volume on the telly. And she also had cataracts removed. It seemed that as soon as she’d turned 70, there was always something else.
‘Her mother suffered from osteoporosis and in old age, slowly became a shadow of her former self. That was my mum’s darkest fear, that the same thing would happen to her. She was getting a bit worn down by ill-health, even though she still had that incredible poise and dignity.
‘So as much of a tragedy as her death was, I think that in some respects she would have chosen to go when she did because for her it was all about having a quality of life. It wasn’t the length of time – it was being able to do what she wanted to do.’
She loved television,’ said Robert. ‘It can burn out most people, but she thrived on it. It wasn’t a monster to her. It was a good friend. She loved a live audience, she loved taking on a challenge.
Robert’s life was turned upside down when his mother died at her holiday home in Estepona in August 2015. Robert is pictured at his wedding to Fiona Craihe with Cilla in 2001
Reflecting on Cilla’s amazing career, which saw her mature from teenage pop singer to the undisputed queen of Saturday night television, hosting hit shows such as Blind Date and Surprise Surprise, Robert says: ‘I’m incredibly proud of what she achieved and that she did it all on her terms.
‘There was no one quite like her. She was someone who could go out on a stage and captivate an audience.
‘She was the standard-bearer for all the women you see on TV these days and she was inspirational because she wasn’t there because of her looks or appearance, but because of her character, her force of personality.
‘And the shows she did in the 1960s, going into the audience and chatting with them – that was her. That didn’t happen before. All these devices we now know as the language of TV, she did them first.’
Before his mother died, Robert was involved in Cilla, the award-winning TV dramatisation of her life, starring Sheridan Smith – Cilla very much approved of the portrayal.
‘We were in the edit for the TV drama when we realised this could very much work on stage,’ he says. ‘The screenwriter Jeff Pope got quite excited because he’d never done a stage show before.
Before his mother died, Robert was involved in Cilla, the award-winning TV dramatisation of her life, starring Sheridan Smith – Cilla very much approved of the portrayal. Robert is pictured at his wedding to Fiona in 2001
‘I discussed the idea with Mum, but she was very guarded. It was a little bit out of her comfort zone – someone else playing her, the relationship, their love story. But once she saw the scripts she was happy.’
No doubt she would have been delighted with Cilla The Musical, which opened at the Liverpool Empire earlier this year to multiple ovations and has since been touring. There are plans for a West End run in 2018.
The role of Cilla is played by 28-year-old Kara Lily Hayworth, who beat thousands of hopefuls in a nationwide open audition for the coveted role.
‘I choked back a tear when Kara did Liverpool Lullaby – that was the song Mum used to sing to us as kids,’ Robert recalls.
‘That opening night was so intense, I’ll never forget it. I think Mum was there in some way. You felt her presence. She would have loved it.’
Clearing out The Grove ready for sale was an emotional experience for Robert and his brothers.
‘Obviously I miss my mum and I regret the fact that she’s not here. But I don’t have any other regrets. I don’t think she could have lived her life in any other way,’ Robert added
‘My parents never threw anything away, so we found some great things – fantastic photos and letters,’ he recalls.
But more than anything, it was a reminder of the normality of their childhood. ‘At home, when we were kids, Mum was relaxed, the make-up wasn’t on and she was very much “our mum”.
‘And for our part, we were not necessarily impressed by her showbusiness life. In fact, we were slightly embarrassed by it until we got to an age where we could appreciate it.
‘But we were fortunate because my parents always made us aware that showbusiness was work, and that it was their choice to be at home with us at weekends.
‘When they weren’t working, they were with us. And where they could, we would go along with them. We definitely knew we were very much loved and cared for and they not only took an interest in us, they were clearly involved with our upbringing.
In her own later years, Cilla’s joie de vivre and ebullient persona masked increasing physical discomfort and even deafness
‘We were made to feel wanted and loved. Family life was what it was all about for them. We understood they were doing it to give us the best they could give us.’
Cilla would be delighted, he thinks, that the brothers are keeping the villa in Estepona, and the home in Barbados where Cilla used to spend the winter months and socialise with her good friend Sir Cliff Richard.
Her only regret, he believes, was losing her husband Bobby to cancer in 1999, when he was just 57 and she was 56. Being widowed so young, he says, led her to abandon her original plan for them both to retire at 60 and live out their lives in luxury.
Sadly, Cilla lived the rest of her life alone. ‘She was very young when she lost my dad,’ says Robert. ‘I don’t think that was part of the narrative for her to spend the rest of her life on her own. But she was just so in love with my dad and she lost him, she was widowed.
‘She always said she was a never-say-never girl. But when it came down to it, no one could replace my dad. Nobody could measure up to him.’
Instead, Cilla turned to work to fill the void. Does he think the monster of TV took its toll on her in later years?
‘She loved television,’ Robert replies. ‘It can burn out most people, but she thrived on it. It wasn’t a monster to her. It was a good friend. She loved a live audience, she loved taking on a challenge.
‘I’ve seen her do things where she had that in-the-moment ability to do something special out of nothing. She wanted to be a star.
‘And at the same time she had the normality of a family life, and she had the love of a good husband and her children.
‘Obviously I miss my mum and I regret the fact that she’s not here. But I don’t have any other regrets. I don’t think she could have lived her life in any other way.
‘She always did it on her terms, rightly or wrongly. And that was right for her.’
- Cilla The Musical continues its successful tour from January 16 at Dartford Orchard Theatre. For tour details, visit cillathemusical.com.