Gloria and Cilla close friends over 30 years

Gloria Hunniford with Cilla Black and Cliff Richard.

Gloria Hunniford with Cilla Black and Cliff Richard.

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Portadown’s Gloria Hunniford is foremost among the celebrities to pay tribute to Cilla Black, who died from a stroke at her holiday home in Spain at the weekend at the age of 72.

Gloria’s friendship with the effusive Liverpudlian singer-presenter goes back 30 years – to the mid-1980s when Gloria left Northern Ireland to develop into one of the most influential personalities in radio and TV in Britain.

They enjoyed parallel fame, with Cilla presenting light entertainment shows like ‘Blind Date’ and ‘Surprise! Surprise!’ while Gloria (three years older than Cilla) became the first woman to present her own regular show on Radio Two and developed into a chat show host and general presenter of true excellence.

“We hit it off right away, I suppose because we have similar working-class family roots,” said Gloria, “she being a down-to-earth Liverpool lass and I being grounded in Portadown.” The Portadown ‘exile’ was speaking from Dublin airport, having spent the past week in Ireland and was about to board the plane back to London - she lives in Sevenoaks, Kent, with her husband Stephen Way.

Gloria added, “Cilla enjoyed two wonderful careers, firstly as a pop singer with great hits like ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’, ‘Alfie’ and ‘You’re My World’, and then as a presenter of her wonderful TV shows which were such a hit, thanks to her magnetic personality.” Both women made it big nationally, with sheer force of personality and their ability to communicate.

Gloria did her own share of singing, “well down the league table from Cilla, of course”, and they performed together at a Royal Variety Show. They were joined by Cilla’s co-presenter Christopher Biggins and belted out the Andrews Sisters’ wartime classic ‘The Boogie, Woogie, Bugle Boy from Company B’.

“That was tremendous fun,” Gloria recalled. “Cilla’s classic line was that Christopher had better legs than either of us!”

They supported one another’s charity projects, counting Cliff Richard among their dearest mutual friends, with their paths crossing so many times over the years.

At the peak of their careers, they dominated much of London Weekend Television, Cilla with her cheery hit shows, and Gloria with the intensive ‘Sunday, Sunday’ series which saw her quiz international stars like Bette Davis, Sean Connery and James Stewart.

Another member of the LWT Triumvirate in those days was Michael Aspel, whose ‘This is Your Life’ and ‘Aspel and Co’ were part of the intensive output.

Said Gloria, “Cilla had developed into a classy star, brilliantly managed by her husband Bobby, whose death in 1999 from lung cancer (he was just 57) was a shattering blow. She never got over it. Bobby gave her the confidence to act like the true star she was. She travelled first class and by limo – real style. And she retired in style a few years ago, making the announcement on TV, wrong-footing everyone associated with her!”

Their last encounter was at the barbecue of a mutual friend, a fortnight before Cilla’s sad death.

Cilla was moving gracefully into her early 70s and talked of niggling conditions. “Stiff joints and slowing-up that comes to us all,” said Gloria. “But there was no hint that she had any condition anywhere near terminal. That’s what makes it all the more difficult to take.”