Harry Rodger Webb, better known as Sir Cliff Richard, has sold more than 250 million records worldwide, making him one of the bestselling artists of all time. He has even equalled Elvis Presley’s accomplishment of having a chart-topper in every decade from the 1950s to the 1990s. And his reputation as a man of faith also precedes him – he’s arguably one of the most prominent Christians in the UK today.
I first met Cliff at a Christian event in the 1960s. He’d recently become a Christian and was there to share his testimony. I’d only just revived my own commitment to Christ and, as a member of the pop band The Settlers, I was finding it difficult to find a church where I wouldn’t be recognised. I wanted to fade into the background, and Cliff’s suggestion that I try St Paul’s in north London was a welcome one. I went on to make lifelong friends there.
Later, when Cliff came to watch us perform a solo concert at the Royal Festival Hall, he asked us to get involved with a major venture he was planning – a gospel concert tour. We toured Sweden, Denmark and the former Yugoslavia – and then played three nights at the Royal Albert Hall to raise money for a new charity, The Evangelical Alliance Relief Fund (later rebranded Tearfund). We also worked together on a six-part TV series where he played a guy who had three girlfriends – Una Stubbs, who wanted his money; me, who wanted to settle down and Lynda Marshall (who became Lynda La Plante) who just wanted the best for him. She got him in the end!
As the years went on, we collaborated more and more, and he became a close friend. Cliff was determined to use his fame to share his faith – and soon his fans became used to gospel songs featuring in his shows. The popular music magazine Melody Maker commented at the time: “Rock and roll and God work together well, in the hands of someone who loves them both.”
Right from when he first went public with his faith – sharing his testimony at a Billy Graham rally in 1964 – Cliff has had his detractors. People have accused him of being disingenuous – of using his faith to get publicity. As he would often point out, there are easier ways. He always presumed the press were expecting him to fall out of a club very drunk one evening. They’re still waiting.
Like anyone in the public eye, Sir Cliff has become accustomed to handling the media, but he was genuinely taken aback by the BBC’s decision to film a police raid on his home in 2014. Officers were responding to a claim of historical sexual assault, but the singer was never charged. Even now, he still struggles to comprehend the decision taken by the broadcaster’s executives, which led to helicopters circling above his home and journalists and photographers camping outside. He was appalled at the corporation’s response: an expression of regret for the hurt caused, but never an apology for broadcasting the raid). He told me: “The BBC only said the words: “Sorry [you] went through that, but we were doing our job’ What job? That’s not their job!”
Sir Cliff went on to win his privacy case at the high court and was awarded the highest level of general damages in any case of its kind. But these events have clearly scarred the singer, and we spoke at length about the hurt he experienced, as well as how God helped him to forgive. In spite of – or perhaps because of – the turmoil that has sometimes surrounded him, he tells me his faith has continued to grow stronger.
How does it feel to be 80?
It feels no different to being 79, to be honest with you. It’s a huge number, but I don’t feel it weighing me down. Sometimes, even the thought of ageing upsets people. I remember when Cilla [Black] was going to be 70, and she kept saying to me in Barbados: “I don’t want to be 70, I can’t do it.” And if you have an attitude about age, the danger is that it could damage your sights on life. You’ve just got to live and enjoy it. And even if you’re not physically able to do too much, do what you can, and do it with people who are the same standard as you. I play tennis mostly with people at the same standard, so we have fun, but none of us are gonna win Wimbledon.
I remember when we first got together and toured and did all those gospel concerts to raise money for Tearfund, which was a brand-new charity back then. Would you ever think of doing anything like that again?
Yeah, I would, but I went through a period where I thought: You know, someone else has got to do this. At that stage, we were all a heck of a lot younger. I met you, because you were with The Settlers and were willing to do charity shows because you were a believer. But no one seems to be coming through at the moment.
When I started to do gospel concerts on my own, I made sure that the public knew that I wouldn’t be singing ‘Congratulations’. And I explained I wanted to spend the evening with them to sing to them about things that could change their life. I did play ‘Devil woman’, because I got a letter from a woman in Australia. She said: “My friend wanted to have a séance, and I was thinking the Bible says ‘don’t get involved, it’s dangerous’, so I gave my friend your ‘Devil woman’ record.” The friend wrote back saying: “I’ve heeded the warning in the lyrics and I’m not going.”
So for me, it was encouraging to think that a pop record could actually help someone. Nobody converts anybody else. God does all that. But if you can put a seed in there, because of the way you speak, or the story you tell, it can touch someone.
Do you have a favourite gospel song?
Well, funnily enough I’ve done a gospel song on the new album [The Air That I Breathe] with Sheila Walsh. We used to do gospel concerts and some charity work together. Her producer got in touch and said Sheila would like you to sing a duet. They sent me the demo and it sounded like a brand-new gospel song. Turns out, it’s an old hymn written in the 1700s. And it’s just the most wonderful song: ‘It is well with my soul’. I looked it up and discovered the guy who wrote it was a minister, and his four daughters and wife got on a boat and they sailed off and he never saw them again. They drowned. And for me, you know, I think faith can get you through almost everything. But for him to be able to later put pen to paper…I don’t know how he wrote it – to write a song like ‘It is well with my soul’ having gone through that terrible loss. So now when I’m listening to it, I constantly think about what this man went through and how his faith got him through. And in a way, my faith got me through the worst years of my life, too.
Whether it was the false accusations of sexual assault, or the BBC broadcasting the police raid on your home live on TV, do you ever wonder: Where was God in all of that?
It’s really strange how people say they don’t believe in God, but then if something bad happens, they immediately ask: “How can God allow this to happen?” So they’re actually arguing with somebody they don’t believe exists! But for me, he has always been there. And when this thing [the accusations] happened, it was absolutely soul-destroying, because I couldn’t imagine that somebody would make up a story that could have killed me.
I was in my house in Portugal with a group of friends two days after the news broke. That morning, my legs gave way and I fell on the floor, weeping. My friend John came in and asked what I was doing. I said: “I feel like I’m in a deep hole and I don’t know that I’m going to get out.” So he knelt beside me and said: “Did you do this?” I said: “No.” He said: “Have you ever done anything like this?” I said: “Absolutely not.” He said: “I believe you. You know you didn’t do it. And what’s more, God knows you didn’t do this. Stand up. You can get through this.” And that began to make me feel stronger, although it was still the most horrible four years. But I felt that God was alongside me.
I had loads of people come to visit me, and all my friends came and kept me calm during the day. But in the end, when you’re lying in your bed and nobody is there, I would talk to God. I talked to God so much, he must have got so bored! But to me, those prayers were vital for me surviving those years. I never felt devoid of God.
How did you manage to forgive your accuser?
I woke up in the middle of the night at 3:15am – about three days after I’d fallen down and got up again. I started praying for family, friends, people who are sick, everybody. And, in the end it was just a matter of me realising that I needed to do something. Because even in the first three days, there was this hate and I was getting frustrated – Who is this guy? And I began to hate him. And so I just said to God: “I would like to forgive him.” And then I said: “I forgive him.” And I felt OK.
In the end, forgiveness is more about you than the person who wronged you. I don’t even know this man’s name. He doesn’t know that I’ve forgiven him. I simply started making up reasons. And one of them was: maybe he has got a child that’s so sick he can’t afford to get them to America where there’s a surgeon that could cure her. And then I thought: If that’s the reason, I can forgive him, because he’s trying to do good for somebody else.
I still to this day can’t believe how people survive these bad things without having that other being – that we can’t even describe, really.
We say in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”, and we say that quite glibly sometimes, but you were put in that position and that must have been a big step.
Yes, and that’s why I feel that my Christian faith grew because of those four years. I don’t want to go through it again, but if I had to, I would deal with it in exactly the same way. It’s impossible for me now, looking back, to have gone through that without the knowledge that God was there, and that he loved me. When I say God loves me, we should have another word for it really. I love the skin of custard. To use the same word to say “God loves me” – I just think there has to be another word! But we don’t have enough language to accommodate God’s love for us.
I came into the courtroom one day and sat with you. And I remember being led to give you the words to Psalm 40.
Yes, I remember. That verse was about being lifted out of the mire and the pit. And I felt I was in a pit I couldn’t get out of. I understood ‘mire’ as being stuck. And then it said that God lifts you up out of the mire and places your foot on a rock. And you think: Oh, yeah, I can relate to that. Absolutely.
Were you aware of Christians praying for you during that time?
Oh yes, I was. I’ve had friends and family praying for me constantly and it’s just fantastic for me. I think that’s a real honour to have people that care for you that much.
There’s nobody who doesn’t need prayer. Sometimes people think praying is about: “I want a number one record.” But praying is taking somebody you care for and placing them in God’s care. The funny thing is you have to get used to the fact that God doesn’t answer everything the way you’d want him to – otherwise I would be number one every day in the charts!
There’s a line in your song ‘Rise Up’ that says: “The clouds were darkest / I could not see the end of it / But something inside of me never learned to quit.” Would you say that sums you up?
Terry Britten has known me for 40 years and he wrote that lyric for me. It was wonderful to be able to sing it. “Rise up, they’re never going to keep me down. They’re never gonna break me down.” In the end, I proved to them, the police and the BBC, that they couldn’t break me down.
I’m not quite sure why both of them did what they did, because at the court case, towards the end, the superintendent of the South Yorkshire Police, who was in charge at the time when that accusation came, said words to the effect of: “I’m not sure what we’re doing here. A very confused man came in. He said he was 13 when he was abused but didn’t know which football pitch it happened at. Didn’t know what year it happened.”
And I thought: Yeah, what are we doing here? How could you follow an accusation from someone who doesn’t even know when their 13th birthday was? The one thing that still confuses me is, having put me through four years of the most unbelievable emotional torture, not a single head rolled at the BBC. Two of them have been promoted. But the fact we put them in their place means that they’ll have to think very hard if they ever do this again.
Have you been able to forgive the BBC?
Yes. I’m happy to forgive them and get on with my life. In fact, when the court case ended, I did not punch the air. Gloria Hunniford said my body language didn’t change at all. All I could feel was relief. I’m past it, but I’m never going to get over it.
What’s your favourite Bible passage?
I think it’s Philippians 4:13. It’s the one that says: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” [RSV]. In other words, we are all capable of doing just about anything. But if we want to do something really well, it has to come from this other source of strength.
Your autobiography has just been released and it is called The Dreamer. Where did the title come from?
I used to dream about being Elvis and I started having a career that was like his. I didn’t even know I was going to be 50 years old, let alone 80 and have a 62-year-long career, so it’s masses of dreams all coming true.
To hear the full interview listen to Premier Christian Radio at 8pm on Saturday 9 January or download The Profile podcast