Twelve days into rehearsals and it’s clear the show is coming together. The singer bursts into hit after hit, moving non-stop to the carefully choreographed routines, markers set on the mock stage so he and his band know exactly where to go.
Watching him in action, it’s hard to remember that Sir Cliff Richard is 80: he’ll be celebrating his 81st birthday later this month. He has the energy of a man half his years old, who can easily keep up with his younger band members throughout the nearly two-hour set.
But none of the fans attending his 13-day tour, which starts next Thursday in Sheffield, will doubt his age. After all, it’s Sir Cliff’s Great 80 Tour, postponed from last year when Covid restrictions forced it to be cancelled.
Unlike previous tours, no family, close friends or fans are allowed to meet Sir Cliff backstage
Twelve months later, the power of the pandemic to derail live entertainment is still an issue, as a slew of West End shows are all too well aware. And so, as one of his management teams puts it: ‘We don’t take any risks’.
As a result, unlike previous tours, no family, close friends or fans are allowed to meet Sir Cliff backstage.
There will also be no reception at London’s Royal Albert Hall (where he does four shows), which had become ‘the norm’ after his performances there each year. To deter his famously devoted fans, he has even rehearsed at a secret location outside of London. I am privileged to have exclusive behind the scenes access.
When it comes to vaccines, there’s no room for doubt either, unlike the feud over unvaccinated dancers that has engulfed Strictly Come Dancing. Sir Cliff has been vaccinated three times and all members of his backstage team and band have also been stung.
Sir Cliff says: ‘I’ve never taken a tour like this — never! If you think we’ve all never experienced anything like this in our lives.
“But it’s really me who have to be careful because even though I’ve been vaccinated three times, you can still carry that virus and you can get a little sick from it.
“If I get sick now, the whole damn thing will be gone. So the last thing I want is me to be the reason we’re canceling something. So I’m going to be very careful.
He adds: ‘My tire is all vaccinated and we are tested regularly. So we’re sure we’ll get through it and the public won’t notice anything else.
“I’m very lucky because not only do we audition for people because they are good players, but somehow I ended up with people who feel like family. And I like that. We laugh together, we eat together, we sit in bars together. Although bars are not allowed this year.’
After having to wait two years to be able to do what he loves to do again – Sir Cliff’s last concerts were in the summer of 2019 – he is eager 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 arranged everything and started promoting everything.’
When it comes to vaccines, there’s no room for doubt either, unlike the feud over unvaccinated dancers that has engulfed Strictly Come Dancing. Sir Cliff has been vaccinated three times and all members of his backstage team and band have also been stung
Having to postpone everything came as a terrible shock. “But it wasn’t just my shows,” Sir Cliff says. “The whole world has had to change because of the pandemic. So we just had to bite the bullet and put things off – and hope and pray that it could happen this year.
“Our prayers are answered as we are all ready to go. My band is so excited – they couldn’t wait to get started either. I think the fans will enjoy what we plan to do.
“We’re doing a great mix of things, but the most important thing is to get it right, and that’s what we’re doing in rehearsals right now.”
As a perk of his age – or perhaps the benefit of having over six decades of experience and a singing voice to protect – Sir Cliff is allowed to arrive a little later for rehearsals. The band is usually at 10am but Sir Cliff doesn’t start until 11:30am.
“That means I can have a bit of a lazy morning,” he says, grinning. “Then I’ll join the band and we can go over things.
“I think it’s important to me anyway, because you can play an instrument for hours, but you can’t sing for hours. They are very good. They are very careful with me. And so far, so good.
“This is the twelfth day of rehearsal and we’ve only had two days off in that time to give everyone a break.”
Since he was almost famous since he started at age 17, I wonder if his career still gives him the same buzz after all these years.
But there’s no hesitation when he replies, ‘Oh yes. It comes to a head when I walk into a rehearsal room and you get up and the band plays and you sing and you think, “My God, this is fantastic.” ‘
He adds: ‘We talk about it long before we rehearse. I’ve been pretty good 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, that’s when the buzz really comes to you.”
He is particularly pleased that the new tour will feature the priceless red Fender Stratocaster that Sir Cliff bought for Hank Marvin to play when he was with The Shadows in the late 1950s. The first Stratocaster imported to Britain is a piece of rock history.
Sir Cliff says: ‘I think the audience will find it interesting that this beautiful guitar, which became a rock ‘n’ roll symbol, still plays so well.’
Today Sir Cliff arrived for rehearsals in black jeans and a checked shirt. He works hard to maintain his slender shape — he still has 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. In his own words, this was devised professionally for him and he combines it with regular tennis parties (although Covid offered challenges here).
Sir Cliff spent lockdown at his home in Barbados, which has a swimming pool and tennis court.
‘Luckily, the Prime Minister’ [of Barbados] restrictions were introduced very quickly, which is why the country has been on the green list for so long. But the coach I played tennis with was only allowed to work three days a week due to Covid restrictions, so I booked my sessions quickly.
‘We are the lucky ones. I have a big house, I could walk in the two acre garden. So it wasn’t too bad for me, but my heart burns for people who live in apartments, especially if they have kids. It must have been very hard for them.’
Thanks to his healthy lifestyle – and a bit of luck – Sir Cliff can still truthfully say that he only spent one night in the hospital.
“About three years ago, my gallbladder had to be removed,” he says. “I feel I am blessed with good health. My father died quite young [from complications of thrombosis]. I was in my twenties, he was in his fifties. But my mother was healthy, so a gene may have come through.
“I must be doing something right because I still feel good. I will never be able to do what I did in my 20s and 30s. When I watch some of the videos, I ran around like a dancing maniac! I now have an excuse not to. I just say, “I want to look like a worthy 80-year-old rocker!” ‘
Laughing, he continues: ‘I always tell myself, it was so hidden in me that even I didn’t know that eventually I would start dancing with dancers and play a little guitar and act.
“I had to find it along the way. I don’t regret anything, but if I started over, I wish my parents could afford to send me to drama school.’
The only time there’s an element of sadness in his voice is when he thinks about the friends he’s lost over the 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 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 while relaxing on a beach at the end of a day of filming. Years later he bought his own vineyard in Portugal.
There were rumors that Una and Sir Cliff started dating after that – and she starred in his television series in the 1960s – but they were only good friends.
“The problem with Una is that I had no idea she’d been sick,” he says. ‘Una was one of those people who . . . we sometimes didn’t see each other for three or four years, but every time we saw each other it was as if we had just had summer vacation.
“It was always the same. I have always loved her; she was just the most amazing person. She was only three or four years older than me.
‘She was very easy to get along with, a beautiful woman, a great character and very talented. So yes, her family is going to miss her terribly. I still think of her and I think I will always think of her.’
And he says he still misses Cilla too. ‘Have you forgotten? Not really. Someone once said, “If you’ve lost people you love, talk about it”. Cilla is alive now because we talked about her. She’s still a part of me.’
Although he has enjoyed many winters at his Barbados estate, as part of a long-term downsizing plan, he put the property up for sale last year.
But it’s the future that Sir Cliff’s main focus is now – the tour and beyond.
Although he has spent many winters at his Barbados estate as part of a long-term downsizing plan, he put the property up for sale last year.
The estate – Coral Sundown – served as a wonderful retreat for him: ‘I’ve spent all my life with the public, so I just wanted my house to be out of reach. At least there I am away from prying eyes. I can relax and enjoy the fantastic view. It’s pretty nice to have a normal lifestyle.”
But even if it’s time to move on, he won’t leave Barbados – he loves it too much. Instead, he will probably have a smaller building built on the island.
He is still blessed with a beautiful voice and there are no thoughts of retirement: ‘Not only do I find it hard to believe that my career has lasted so long, but also that I still get the chance to do what I do best. love.’
It looks like Sir Cliff will seize that opportunity for many years to come.