In 2003, Cilla Black joined the dubious company of Richard Nixon and Edward VIII in quitting their posts live on air. Admittedly, Nixon and Edward VIII’s posts were a tad more venerated than that of the presenter of ‘Blind Date’, but nonetheless, Cilla did indeed join their ranks when she made the announcement that she’d be leaving the show in front of several million viewers after 18 years and as many series.
Her unexpected resignation was a complete shock to ITV bosses, who hadn’t been told that she was planning to quit. She said that she wanted to leave the show before it became 'a chore’.
“Over New Year I thought a lot about what I wanted to do in 2003, and decided that it was the right time to move on from Blind Date,” she told the audience (and producers). “All good things come to an end and the show deserves to finish on a high and be remembered as a success. Now I’m looking forward to a year filled with exciting new challenges. I have had great fun for 18 years and would like to thank everyone involved in the show.”
Probably somewhat taken aback, Paul Jackson, the director of entertainment at Granada, said: “This has been entirely Cilla’s decision and we completely respect her for it. We would like to thank Cilla for giving us 18 fantastic years. We wish Cilla nothing but success for the future - it is certainly the end of an era.”
The series had launched in 1985, aping the US show 'The Dating Game’. Cilla and voiceover don 'Our Graham’ Skidmore presided over the matchmaking, and after a decent starting episode – which drew over seven million viewers – it became a Saturday night staple, and along with 'Surprise, Surprise’, the show Cilla became best known for. By its peak in the mid-80s, it drew in audiences of over 18 million to ITV.
Before they became famous, contestants included Amanda Holden, the stand-up comedian Ed Byrne, former 'This Morning’ reporter Jenni Falconer and, in its latter days, future 'Big Brother’ contestant Nikki Grahame. There were three 'Blind Date’ weddings too, Cilla herself attending the 1998 union of Anna Azonwanna and Paul Pratt in Barbados, and the 1991 nuptials of Sue Middleton and Alex Tatham. Her live quitting aside, Cilla caused other controversies on the show. In 1997, Nicola Gill (below), a journalist for Cosmopolitan went undercover and beat the show’s vetting process, in the hope of writing a behind-the-scenes exposé. A furious Cilla outed her in front of the studio audience.
“Well Nicola, I have to say I’ve got more than a little surprise for you,” she said. “Cause I know what you’re at and I feel awfully, deeply saddened by this. You don’t work as a temporary secretary.
I know for a fact that you’re actually an undercover journalist and you’ve robbed somebody of coming on a proper Blind Date. You work for Cosmopolitan magazine. It’s just a shame you tried to pull the wool over our eyes… but you didn’t!”
It was after her bombshell on-air resignation that she then opened up about her reasons for leaving. The show had suffered ailing ratings for some years, dropping to as low as 2.9 million by 2003. Format changes were planned to try and buoy ratings, but Cilla was having none of it. 'Big Brother’-style video diaries and more interaction with the audience at home, with the dates being chosen by viewers, didn’t sit well. Neither did the plan to reduce Cilla’s interaction with the contestants and shunting the show to a 6pm slot to make way for 'Popstars: The Rivals’.
“I had always loved chatting to the contestants. I’ve always been an entertainer and I felt removing the chance for me to chat at the beginning of the show turned me more into just a presenter,” she told The Sun.
“I am not against changes for the good. But my view has always been, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.”
Citing her reasons for quitting on air, she said that 'the viewers deserved to know first. They made me - they made the show. Even my closest friends didn’t know’.
Asked if she thought she’d be replaced, she almost mocked the idea. “Replace me?,” she said. “I don’t think so. Alan Boyd [chief executive of Blind Date’s producer, Thames TV] said there are three sacred cows in Blind Date - the three stools, the screen and Cilla Black.” However, Dale Winton and Cilla’s pal Paul O'Grady were soon in line to take over, but she strongly advised against it. “If I was asked for advice I’d say, Give it a rest for a while so when you bring in someone new it will be fresh,” she said. It was soon cancelled altogether.
It wouldn’t be until 2010 that 'Blind Date’ would get its spiritual successor, the Paddy McGuinness-fronted 'Take Me Out’. Cilla herself was a big fan. “I love the show – they needed an entertaining dating show on the telly and that fits the bill,” she once said. But even Paddy would probably have admitted that it’s no 'Blind Date’.
Image credits: Rex Features/PA/YouTube/Getty