Sir Cliff Richard has sold his palatial home on the St George’s Hill estate in Weybridge, Surrey, but the entertainer is not forsaking Britain for America, as you might have heard, but merely downsizing. Indeed, he has already put in an offer for a smaller place scarcely 20 minutes away.
At 65, Sir Cliff is at an age when most men have completed the metamorphosis into a fully formed Victor Meldrew and are only too happy to talk about the sense of despair they feel for their country and its people. The traditional next stage is migration to Spain — or anywhere else in the world but Britain — where disgruntled expats are wont to gather and moan and talk about the way things were.
What I find extraordinary about Sir Cliff is that he has become an old-age pensioner with not just his youthful good looks but also his youthful spirit intact. Just as Alastair Campbell doesn’t do God, Sir Cliff doesn’t do anything else but God, and therefore cynicism and despair don’t come naturally to him. All that seems to interest him is the future.
He has decided he wants to have one last crack at breaking the American market and that, he says, might mean a bolthole across the Atlantic, but never a home. He could never have any other home but Britain, but he feels that a place that is a bit smaller and easier to manage is now more sensible for him.
‘Oh, people complain about the country, but I don’t think life has ever been very easy or without change for any generation. Anyone who lives here for more than 20 years sees change and, while we may not like it, we have to live with it and we might as well change with it and get on with it because we aren’t going to stop it.’
I am talking to Sir Cliff the day after the local election results, and a look at any of the papers, but the Daily Mail in particular, would have most people on the line to the Samaritans as a matter of urgency. Sir Cliff, however, is as cheerful as ever.
‘The political situation is always the same. Politicians come and go. I am not a political animal. I do not understand politics at all. I recognise, though, that we are inclined these days to expect our politicians to be perfect. Well, no man ever is and politicians — like all men — always turn out to have flaws. So none of this strikes me as terribly surprising or anything to get upset about.’
It was, he says, compassion rather than political conviction that caused him to put in a call to Cherie Blair, in the aftermath of the Iraq war, to suggest that she and her husband might care to take their family holiday at his villa on Barbados. ‘I had watched Tony Blair wither when that war got started. I saw him on television and it seemed to me he was suffering the results of his decision. I just felt sorry for him and so I said to Cherie, “Look, I don’t do this sort of thing normally, but I just know my place on Barbados isn’t going to be full of people this August and if you want to use it, then go ahead.” It was just something I wanted to do for him as a human being. Certainly money didn’t come into it. I don’t charge any of my friends for staying at the villa. The Blairs said they would give a donation to charity. I said “fine” if they were going to do that, but that was up to them.’
Does he consider himself to be a friend of Tony Blair? ‘It is too early to talk in those terms. We are certainly not close friends. When we meet we don’t talk politics, or hardly at all. The times we have talked about Iraq, it is clear that he believed it was the right thing to do. At this stage, he is probably regretting it, being misled and all of that. I think it will be a lot easier to talk to him about things like this when he leaves office, because we will be on a more equal footing.’
Sir Cliff has no doubt that Blair is sincere in his Christian faith, and it irks him that these days it is considered to be a rather dangerous thing for a politician ever to have to admit — to, say, Sir David Frost or Jeremy Paxman, who always seem interested in this one — whether they had ever, at a time of crisis, got down on their knees to pray. ‘People see prayer as a weakness. I guess they feel a politician who bows his head is less of a man or something. The Bible makes the point that by humbling ourselves we actually lift ourselves up, we make ourselves bigger. It seems a pity people can’t say, “Well, yes, you know, I did pray and I don’t care who knows it.”’
Sir Cliff makes the point that an American president would always happily let it be known that he had prayed with a man such as Dr Billy Graham, but in Britain — because there are fewer people who profess to be Christian and who attend church regularly — it is more expedient for a British prime minister, if he does it at all, to keep it to himself.
‘It worries me a little bit that we don’t stand up for our country and what we believe in, in the way that we used to. Whether we believe in it or not, our whole country is based very much on a Christian set of values and it seems to me that’s something to be proud of, in that it has got us this far. I would naturally feel disappointed if we were to dump all of that, but that is not really happening, is it? It is not being dumped, it is just being pushed aside a little bit.’
That last qualification is typical of Sir Cliff. He seems incapable of becoming really angry about anything. I raise the issue of standards of public morality. Surely that will get him going? ‘Times change. We have to learn to deal with people as they are these days. Christianity still demands of its believers an adherence to a set of rules, but if someone doesn’t believe, then how are we supposed to expect him or her to adhere to these rules? You have to learn to live alongside folk. I know a lot of people who are not Christian and some of them are my friends. You just have to learn to agree to disagree.’
He thinks the Catholic Church is sensible to reappraise its stance on condoms. Jesus, as it happened, didn’t talk a great deal about sex. The subject didn’t particularly interest him. ‘He set a few broad guidelines. Obviously he never got into contraception because it did not then happen, and certainly Aids was not around in those days, as it is now. The Bible offers some general rules about how to go about life, but it should not be taken as a detailed instruction manual, certainly not for people living in the year 2006. We face all sorts of challenges now that could not possibly have been envisaged at the time that the Bible was being written.’
He does not worry about ‘all this kerfuffle’ about Creation either. ‘I have no problem whatsoever with the idea of evolution. I almost think that evolution is the better way that God would have done it. If God creates something, he wouldn’t do it simply. He’d have to go about it in the most complicated, incredible, wonderful way. I always think that the Bible was written pre-science, and yet the Creation story kind of fits in with the scientific way of saying that “yes, there was water over the planet, yes, it did split from land to water, yes, fish did start first”. It seems of itself a miracle to me that the Bible got so much of that right. The people who wrote it were trying to write simply for people who were pre-science and would never have understood the theory of evolution at that time.’
I ask Sir Cliff about fundamentalism. ‘It seems to me that the fundamentalists of any religion — these people who take such a rigid approach to their faith and are often driven by it to go to extremes, such as acts of terrorism — must be very insecure in their faith. It’s as if they have something to prove. I think Christians as well as Muslims can be like this — you have only to look at the Crusades to see that.
‘I feel very happy with my relationship with God. I don’t feel the need to prove anything. It pleases me to hear Muslim clerics, who clearly feel as I do, saying that they do not see that people who blow up people in Underground trains and so on can also be Muslims. They do not see in those acts a reflection of their faith at all. It’s comments like these that make me believe we are not all heading towards some kind of apocalyptic confrontation with the Muslim world.’
I tell Sir Cliff it is hard to imagine talking to any other entertainer in Britain today about the future of Britain, fundamentalism, contraception and Tony Blair and dutifully recording every word he has to say about all of these matters for the readers of The Spectator. Sir Cliff has, however, been too successful for too long and knows too many people and has seen too much of life for his views on just about anything not to count.
He laughs. If he doesn’t do cynicism, he doesn’t do self-aggrandisement either. He hasn’t really got the time. He leaves me to plan his ‘Here & Now’ tour which kicks off at the Wembley Arena in November and goes on to a number of European capitals and the Far East and South Africa. A few more extra dates have just been agreed. And, oh yes, this particular old-age pensioner has also got to move house and crack the American market.
Tim Walker edits Mandrake in the Sunday Telegraph.