He’s been called ‘the Peter Pan of Pop’ for almost as long as Peter Pan himself. So how old, out of interest, does Sir Cliff Richard feel as he enters his ninth decade?
Is it 70, or perhaps even 50? After all, when we meet, he looks as slim, tanned and spry as he’s ever done (and millions have got the calendar to prove it!). Known for being a whizz on the tennis court (he still plays three times a week with a professional coach) he is also in better shape than most men half his age.
Yet surely even he must be starting to experience the odd creak and ache of the ageing process now . . .
‘It really doesn’t feel any different to me,’ Sir Cliff insists, though he does confess to needing a hearing aid, or ‘enhancer’ as he calls it, these days. ‘When I’m on stage singing Move It (his first ever hit released with The Shadows in 1958) I become 18.
Portrait of a superstar: Sir Cliff from his 2021 calendar
‘I don’t have any fear of being 80,’ he adds. ‘The funny thing is, as the years have gone by, each decade has been easier to deal with.
‘When I first hit 40, I thought: ‘Oh my goodness, 40.’ Fifty was absolutely no problem at all, nor 60 or 70. Now that I’m at 80, it doesn’t feel any different to me. Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with good health so that helps.’
Sir Cliff turned 80 on October 14, having started out as a singer, and recording his first record, at just 17. Over the years he might have been dismissed, or even mocked, by some for his easy-listening style, but he has outlived and outsold nearly all of his contemporaries.
He is the only performer to have had No 1 hits in five consecutive decades in the UK. (It was very nearly six decades but his 2006 song 21st Century Christmas was pipped to the top spot by X Factor winner Leona Lewis.) But even he — unstoppable for so many years — is no match for a pandemic and knows his limitations. As for so many others, celebrations have been curtailed and plans abandoned or postponed.
He was supposed to be throwing a party during his sold-out tour of the UK that had been due to start this month. Then there was the publication of a new autobiography The Dreamer to mark more than 60 years in the music business. While the book release is still happening, the tour has been pushed back a year but at least, as he says, ‘I will still be 80 when we start the tour — so we can still call it The Great 80 Tour’.
Cliff Richard celebrating his 80th
Meanwhile, the birthday bash has become an intimate dinner for six — so as to keep within Government rules — with close family and friends, including his pal Gloria Hunniford and her husband Stephen.
Like the rest of us, he has not always enjoyed the restrictions the pandemic has brought to our lives. Having flown back to the UK from the U.S. in late September he had to quarantine for 14 days and, in the older age group, he’s mindful about not mixing too much now. But as he says succinctly: ‘I’d rather be bored and locked down than dead!’
I don’t have any fear of being 80 – on stage, I feel like I’m 18
He put the time to good use however: he even recorded a new album, Music — The Air That I Breathe, after lockdown which is to be released at the end of the month.
These days, while there’s still a definite twinkle in his eye, it’s perhaps not quite what it was. He lost much of his joie de vivre during the horrifically stressful events of six years ago, when he was investigated by police over allegations of historic child sexual abuse.
It all began when the BBC were tipped off about a police raid at his luxury apartment in Berkshire, in August 2014, which they filmed from a police helicopter. However, the investigation never got to court and, two years later, Sir Cliff was completely exonerated.
Movie magic: Cliff on the set of his timeless 1963 musical film Summer Holiday
South Yorkshire police later apologised for the way they handled the investigation and he successfully sued the BBC for invasion of privacy.
So, has he finally put these traumatic events, what he describes as a ‘living hell’, behind him? Sir Cliff pauses, carefully considering his words, before saying: ‘I think the best way to put it is that I remember what Gloria [Hunniford] said when she lost Caron, her daughter [Caron Keating the TV presenter died of breast cancer, aged just 41]. She was in a terrible state for a long while. When we asked how she was she said: ‘Look, I’ll get past this. I will get past it, but I’ll never get over it.’
I found myself on the kitchen floor and I couldn’t get up
‘That’s true of me too, that I’ve got past it, but I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.
‘I still get emotionally tight reading about what I had to go through.
‘I don’t think anybody should expect you to get over anything major like that and say it never happened.’
It emerges that it was only last year that Sir Cliff’s spark began to return. ‘I went on tour and my musical director said to me: ‘Welcome back.’ I said: ‘It’s nice to do a little tour.’ But he replied: ‘No, I mean Cliff Richard has come back. You’re back to how you used to be.’ When I said: ‘I was back last year,’ he said: ‘You were back last year but this year you are really back.’
‘So, I assume that means I’ve lost the trauma that was in me, that it’s dissipated and gone.’
Still wowing his millions of fans
Sir Cliff has said in the past that he hopes what he went through — the way the BBC treated him as if they were ‘judge, jury and executioner’ — means nobody else will ever have to go through the same experience.
But he admits the time of the police raid is still ‘pretty vivid in my mind if I start thinking about it’.
He recalls having a breakdown in the kitchen of his Portuguese home, where he was when it happened: ‘When it actually happened, within two days I found myself on the floor of the kitchen. And I couldn’t get up.
‘I had guests in the house and John McElynn, a friend of mine, was with them and he came into the kitchen to find out where I was. And he found me on the floor. He knelt down and said: ‘What’s wrong?’ I said: ‘John, I feel as if I’m in a deep hole and I don’t know how to get out.’
That’s not an apology to me. That still means they think they were right
‘He used to be a priest, so he knew what to say . . . He said: ‘Did you do this?’ I said: ‘No, of course not.’ He said: ‘Did you ever do anything like it?’ I said: ‘No, definitely not.’
‘He then said: ‘Get up. I trust you. I believe you didn’t do it; you know you didn’t do it and what’s more God knows you didn’t do it.’
‘He helped me up and it was a great start. I felt better and started to laugh again and was able to play some tennis.’
It didn’t stop the nightmares, however. ‘I used to wake up every night at 3.15am with my pulse thumping, thumping away. I thought: ‘I won’t commit suicide, but I might die of a heart attack.’ ‘
At least fans quickly rallied around, tying yellow ribbons to the gates of his Portuguese farm estate with messages of support.
Sometimes the support came from unlikely sources. He recalls encountering two guys with vests and tattoos walking towards him one day when he was at Faro Airport. ‘I’m calm, but I thought this looks like the kind of person who is going to punch me straight in the face.
‘But no. This guy came up to me, he put his thumb up and said: ‘All right, Sir Cliff?’ I said: ‘Yeah, I’m all right, thanks mate.’ I suddenly realised that even people in the street didn’t believe it was true.’
Still a pin-up star: Sir Cliff’s 2021 calendar
The pain of that time was compounded by the death in 2016 of one of his three beloved younger sisters, Donna, after a long illness. Cliff describes the immense relief he felt that she heard his name had been cleared shortly before she died: ‘She touched my face, and smiled as she lay in bed and I told her the news.’
Later, his legal team advised he should sue the BBC. Sir Cliff was reluctant: ‘It’s like suing Britain.’ But eventually he was persuaded to sue for invasion of privacy and won a landmark case in 2018, last year being awarded £2 million towards his £4.5 million legal costs.
Today, he continues to have conflicting feelings about the corporation. ‘I still think they are a fantastic institution and everywhere in the world, I know I can get the BBC World News. If they ever offered me another series I probably would do it.
‘But I was slightly confused when not a single person that was involved in creating that traumatic emotional time for me, not one single person, lost their job.
‘The wonderful thing is that the police in court actually apologised and said: ‘We made a mistake.’
‘That’s an apology. The only thing I’ve heard the BBC saying was: ‘We’re so sorry he was put through this, but we were just doing our job.’ That’s not an apology to me. That still means that they think they were right.
‘Then again, you can’t go through life without forgiving. So, at this moment, I’m comfortable, because I forgave them all. I can still talk about it. I don’t feel tainted by it.
‘But I’m still confused that not a head rolled even though they did this to me. They [the BBC] created a four-year vacuum with nothing but pain.’
Sir Cliff quickly got rid of his luxury apartment in Sunningdale, Berkshire, in the aftermath of the raid — no longer able to entertain thoughts of living there again.
He is slimming down his property portfolio in other ways, too. His six-bedroom Portuguese house — where he sought solace during that difficult time — is up for sale for £5.7 million, as well as his mansion on Barbados. (Sir Cliff knows the Barbadian Prime Minister and wants to ask her about the country’s recent decision to drop the Queen as head of state. ‘The Queen is so loved, it’s hard to believe they want to do this,’ he says.)
His plan is to build or buy smaller properties in sunny places where he already has homes. His down-sizing is inspired by his need to ‘slow down’ and ‘cut back’ but: ‘It’s hard to slow down because I love what I do so much, but I’m determined to give myself more time for myself. More time to stop and smell the roses.’
While the concept of retirement is anathema to Sir Cliff, he explains that: ‘I’ve found that it’s just nice to travel. When you go on tour, you hardly ever see the country’. You could say that after 62 years of hard work Sir Cliff just wants to go on a proper Summer Holiday . . .
He reveals that he already loves to go on luxury cruise ship holidays with a group of friends and it emerges that he’s even been known to get up on stage, impromptu and without any rehearsal, and sing a few hits during the evening’s cabaret shows.
‘I don’t think I sing out of tune, but I might sing the wrong tune!’ he jokes. While he has many friends, having dated a string of women in his younger years, Sir Cliff is probably the nation’s best-loved bachelor. Does he feel he missed out on marriage and family?
He talks about following his father’s advice, saying: ‘My father told me to focus and I focused. Yes, I’ve been out with gorgeous friends but, in the end, my life has been one focus only and that’s my career.
‘And in the end, I don’t miss being a father, even though I think I would have been a good father. But instead I hope I have been a really good uncle. [He has 15 nephews and nieces and a host of grand-nephews and nieces.]’
This could be a poignant admission about the price exacted in return for fame and success, but then the twinkle returns, and Cliff adds: ‘Probably at 80, it’s too late anyway.
‘Mind you, Des O’Connor became a father at 70-something, didn’t he!’
And as everyone should know by now, it never pays to underestimate Sir Cliff Richard.
The Dreamer is available from October 29, 2020; Music — The Air That I Breathe is available from October 30.
ON MONDAY: SCHOOL BRAWLS THAT MADE ME A FIGHTER.