Martin Newell's Joy of Essex: Many had persecuted Sir Cliff for years. Why did they do it?
PUBLISHED: 18:00 21 April 2018
One evening in 2002 I'd just returned from drinking a couple of writerly pints at the pub when the phone rang. It was Rod Stewart, writes Martin Newell.
A bit of a surprise, but a pleasant one. I’d always wanted to ask him this one thing.
So I did. “Did you play the harmonica solo on Millie Small’s My Boy Lollipop?” He laughed. I told him that when we were still lads, in the early ’70s, following everything that The Faces did, it was the question that always came up round the campfire.
“Have you heard the story, then?” He laughed again. “I had, actually, but it wasn’t me. It might have been the bass-player from Tomorrow. He had a similar haircut to mine.” Rod and I were on the phone for about 40 minutes. He’d been rather a hero of mine when I was starting out in bands. A nice bloke too, with the memory of an elephant. No airs and graces. Happy with his life.
“Was there ever a time,” I asked him, “during that first flush of major fame, that you felt unbalanced by the experience?” Without hesitation he replied: “No. I’ve always really enjoyed my fame and everything it’s brought me.” There you go, then. The most honest man in rock, I reckon. As Mick Jagger once said, “Fame doesn’t sit well on everyone and on some people (referring to the late Brian Jones) not at all.”
Now, it is a long and involved story as to why Rod Stewart rang up from Los Angeles that evening, so I shall tell you all about it some other time. But I relate the tale to demonstrate that not everyone who’s famous is battling their demons or being hounded by the media. As I am forever saying: in showbiz there are no victims, only volunteers.
However, one chap who I feel really has had an unfairly bad time is Sir Cliff Richard. Born Harry Webb in Lucknow, India, on October 14, 1940 – within days, incidentally, of John Lennon being born in Liverpool – Cliff arrived in England in 1948, via Tilbury in Essex. He and his family settled in Surrey. Just over a decade later he was regarded as Britain’s own Elvis Presley. During the subsequent six decades he released about 150 singles and sold over 250million records worldwide. He’s starred in films, musicals, hosted TV shows and has given millions to charity. He has never, so far as we know, turned blue in anyone else’s bathroom, punched anyone, stolen anything or been involved in any tawdriness. The reward he’s received for his blemish-free life, his generosity, patience and great politesse has been years of media mockery and rumours. Why? It’s very hard to say. He unexpectedly espoused religion in 1964. But, then, so have many performers who found the initial rush of fame, wealth and youth too much to cope with in one big gulp. At least two of Cliff’s former backing group The Shadows became Jehovah’s Witnesses. Sandie Shaw became a Buddhist, Cat Stevens a Muslim. None of them, however, have come in for the general cynicism endured by Sir Cliff because of his Christianity.
Then there is the fact he’s never married. Moreover, he admitted to not even being particularly sexually-oriented. Quelle horreur! An asexual person in showbiz. Whatever next? The amount of time media folk have invested in speculation about Cliff’s sexuality borders upon obsession. In this, our everyone-has-rights world, where does poor Sir Cliff figure? What part of It’s None Of Your Business do we not understand?
In August, 2014, in his mid-70s, Cliff was subjected to such a public ordeal at the hands of the BBC and the South Yorkshire Police that it almost broke him. At one point, as he recounted tearfully in court last week, he feared he might have a heart attack or stroke. Remember how indignant we all were on behalf of actor Andrew Sachs (Manuel from Fawlty Towers) when those two wazzocks phoned him late to taunt him about his granddaughter? Why has it taken all this time and £3.4m of his money for Sir Cliff to defend his good name when he hasn’t done anything wrong?
He is 77 years old. Whilst people like Keith Richards are releasing their memoirs and basking in National Treasurehood, the reclusive Cliff, not that long ago, was refused airplay on Radio 2. Why? Well, erm... he’s unhip. Old ladies like him, don’t they? Anything else to dislike him for? Yes. He’s a Christian. Listen, we’ve got some of those Anglicans round our way. Sometimes, they hold second-hand booksales at their church. Terrifying, isn’t it? I hope he takes his persecutors to the cleaners. Go, Cliff!