INTERVIEW: Total MK speaks with Cilla Black's son about his mother's legacy - and the new musical coming to Milton Keynes next week

A spanking new stage production comes to town next week, telling the story of the extraordinary life of an ordinary girl from Liverpool.

Sit back and see the unfolding of a sometimes rocky, yet always incredible rise to fame of a girl named Priscilla White.
But you know her as Cilla Black.

A five decade-long career saw her leave an indelible mark on the pop music charts, and on the small screen, with TV smashes including Blind Date and Surprise, Surprise.
She gave us 'Our Graham with a quick reminder.'   And to the nation, she was 'our Cilla,' and her unexpected loss in August 2015 was devastating.

A show about her life and career would need to be done with care - luckily, Cilla's eldest son Robert Willis was in the seat marked 'executive producer', just as he was for the television version, which saw Sheridan Smith put on an astounding show.

"When we started talking to my mum about the TV version, she was naturally a little bit reticent about how we would cover the story of their romance, but when she saw the scripts she was happy, and helpful in making it as accurate as possible," Robert says.

Thoughts of a stage show soon followed the small screen smash, and "Mum was very enthusiastic...if she trusted you, she wouldn't interfere. Once she'd seen the TV show and people's response to it.  She said it was the best thing she never did!"

And now, Cilla the Musical is about to go live in Milton Keynes, once again showing the breadth of her career, just as the small screen version did.

"People were aware that she had this musical past, but probably weren't aware of who she'd worked with in terms of musicians and producers, and the success of it. It's like she had two distinctly different careers.

"That drama repositioned people's perspective on her music...I'm very proud it did that for her, and while she was still alive."

Robert has always been around the buzz of a television studio and used to spend his summer holidays going to different theatres.

Later, it became his line of work - after graduating he worked on edgy Channel Four shows The Word and The Big Breakfast, and at GMTV to name a few.

"And then my Dad asked me to run the business and I became my mother's agent..."

Cilla's husband, Bobby, and son worked as a winning team - and Cilla became the highest paid woman in TV history!

When her beloved Bobby passed away in 1999, Cilla was devastated.
"Mum was incredibly vulnerable for the first couple of years, but through the support of her family and friends she was able to be happy in spite of that.

"It was never the same without him and she never stopped loving him..."

And the retirement the couple had planned, never came to fruition either.
"She was semi-retired, but she kept an open mind. At the end of the day, you never retire from showbusiness, it retires you..."

Whoever was going to be cast as Cilla in the new musical would have big shoes to fill, and would need a lorra, lorra ability - as both an actress and singer.
Thousands of hopefuls turned up when auditions were held across the country. From a shortlist of five, it was Kara Lily Hayworth who made the grade.

Originally from Watford, Kara recently performed in Secret Cinema's Moulin Rouge, but this is her first leading role in a big new musical - and her first time on tour.
Robert: "There were some wonderful singers, but at the end of the day it was 'Who could Bill (Kenwright, director) work with?'

"Kara was always at the top of my list..."

And in a strange twist of fate Kara actually met Cilla while still only a child: "When I was 11 I was out shopping with my mum and bumped into Cilla and asked her for an autograph,' Kara remembers.
"I told her I wanted to be an actress - she laughed and said 'It's a tough industry, but if you really work hard and go for it, you'll be just fine."

She heeded the advice, and next week will take centre stage as the lady who provided her with the inspiration.

"Cara is the same height as mum mum and shared the physicality my mum had in the '60s - she's got long legs, a great voice and a vulnerability about her.

"She is very pretty, but she is unconventionally pretty."

The show follows Cilla's sometimes rocky, yet incredible rise to become an international star.

"What you will see and feel is the buzz and atmosphere of the Cavern Club, the music and the scene," Robert promises, "There is so much music in it.
"You have a fantastic drama, Jeff Pope (BAFTA award-winning producer) is such a brilliant dramatist and you have got this wonderful love story set against the backdrop. It is very strong.

"It is not a jukebox musical," he promises.  This show has far more depth, "We are not just teeing up songs and knocking them out. It's a drama elevated by songs, and songs elevated by drama."

If all goes well, 2018 will see Cilla The Musical shift into the West End, which will be brilliant of course, but it's much more than that for the person who called Cilla 'mum.'  

It's personal.

"This is not a commercial thing for me," Robert says, "it's more about wanting to create a living memorial, a living legacy, some testament to what she was about..." 

Cilla - The Musical will be at Milton Keynes Theatre from September 26 - September 30.

To book tickets click here