Cilla Black – The Very Best of Cilla Black (1983)

60’s British pop music icon and UK television icon, Cilla Black has recently resurfaced as a popular Tik Tok “meme.” However, for the most part, the public who has recently discovered her has no idea what they are laughing at.

Surprise, surprise!

Possibly one of the strangest internet sensations in recent months has been the emergence of British singer Cilla Black as a Tik Tok icon.  Now I will admit I don’t know much about Tik Tok and it’s one of the few social media formats I still have not gravitated to.  But, despite this, even I started to see these clips of Cilla Black showing up in my Instagram and Facebook feeds.  I wasn’t looking for them, but I expect that my algorithms naturally sent them to me.  To the Tik Tok generation, many of who have never heard of Cilla Black either due to their age or geographical location, Cilla has become known as the “Surprise Surprise Lady.”  But on Tik Tok, she is not the hit making girl from Liverpool who hung out with the Beatles and made musical masterpieces out of Burt Bacharach classics.  Oh no.  This Cilla is far removed from the mod Liverpool clubs and Canterbury St. fashions.  Instead, the Tik Tok generation is watching a seemingly out of touch middle aged lady mugging her way through inane situations while butchering bizarrely chosen cover songs in completely daft videos cut in a way that the modern viewer will basically ask “what the hell is this nonsense?”  Basically, the Cilla Black that the modern audience is experiencing on Tik Tok could be called ‘The Worst of Cilla Black.  Hilarious, I suppose, but a misrepresentation of Cilla Black’s legacy as an incredible pop singer and musical trendsetter, a British television icon and a lovely woman who was known for her warmth and empathetic ability to connect with the general public and everyday people.  While Cilla Black has come back into the public consciousness, her entertainment legacy has been torn away leaving nothing more than a laughable meme to baffle a generation who never knew who she was at all.

According to, Cilla Black’s “Surprise Surprise” memes began appearing on Tik Tok in the fall of 2023 and were quickly joined by videos of roughly edited Cilaagrams from her long running ITV series “Surprise Surprise.”

According to the website Know Your Meme, the “Surprise Surprise” meme first started appearing on Tik Tok around September 2023.  Without going into lots of details, a video of Cilla from 1986 singing the opening theme of her long running !TV series “Surprise Surprise” began to be superimposed on descriptions of improbable yet hilarious “surprises.”  Honestly, some of them are pretty funny and I do enjoy the irreverent humor of these memes (for a full rundown on this described far better than I can explain, visit Know Your Meme here).  Well, with hundreds of thousands of Tik Tok watchers finding humor in the videos, the frumpy older “Surprise Surpirse” Cilla became a recognizable face on the internet and, as a result, more Tik Tok content creators wanted to muscle in on the Cilla action.  A second type of Cilla reel began appearing which featured clips from Cilla’s “Cillagram” segments from “Surprise Surprise,” cut without any context, and dropped on Tik Tok for even more insanity and laughs.  Jarring, tacky and completely misguided, they are strange short reels for certain.  But these reels kind of bother me because the kids laughing at the “Surprise Surprise” lady in these daft videos, for the most part, have no idea what it is that they are laughing at.  When I come across these garish videos, and then juxtapose it with playing Cilla Black’s hit recordings, I begin to wonder if she deserves so much more than this.

So, what the hell are these videos all about?  What was “Surprise Surprise, a “Cillagram” and just who was Cilla Black anyways?   If you are my age and lived in the UK, you surely will know all these answers.  Cilla was a fifty year institution in the British entertainment industry.  However, if you consumed primarily North American pop culture, or are just discovering Cilla Black through Tik Tok and other social media platforms, here is a bit of background and subtext to explain these bizarre videos.

Cilla released her first single “Love of the Loved” in 1963. The song was written by Paul McCartney and part of the Beatles’ early live set, but gifted to Cilla to be her debut record. Between 1963 and 1971 Cilla Black had 11 hits on the UK Billboard charts.

Releasing her first single in the UK, “Love of the Loved,” in 1963, Cilla Black became an important part of the British music scene of the 1960’s as one of several female hit makers which helped define the sound and fashion of the era’s swinging mod culture.  However, what made Cilla different than her contemporaries, such as Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, Sandi Shaw and Lulu was that she had close ties to the Beatles and was the sole female member of the Brian Epstein camp.  Growing up in the same Liverpool neighborhood as the Fab Four, Cilla was even employed at the Cavern Club during the Beatles reign there, and “Love of the Love” was written by Paul McCartney who gifted it to Cilla.  From 1963 to 1971 Cilla was one of England’s most successful female solo acts with 11 hits on the UK Billboard charts.  But, in North America Cilla Black remained to be a far more obscure figure and her music never really transported itself across the pond with the rest of the British Invasion.  In America her only record to really make a mark on the public was “You’re My World,” which reached the #26 spot on the US Billboard charts in 1964.

In 1969 Cilla Black surprised a young girl by sending a remote camera crew to her 16th birthday party to wish her a happy birthday on live television. This became a popular segment on her variety show “Cilla,” which later became the entire premise for her follow up series “Surprise Surprise.”

Known for her big personality and for staying connected to her low income Liverpudlian roots, Cilla entered a new phase of her career in 1968 when she was given her own television variety show on the BBC simply titled “Cilla.”  Filled with the kind of comedy sketches, musical guests and antics one expected from these types of programs of the time, Cilla brought something different to the show which most presenters of her status had never done before.  She liked to take herself out of the studio to mingle with the public, and often would bring the everyday people of Britain into the studio to be on her show.  With an ability to quickly make meaningful connections with people on the street, Cilla enjoyed normal folks as much as she enjoyed celebrity guests and loved giving everyday people their fifteen minutes of fame.

It was during an episode early on in her first season that Cilla did something truly original, which would become an important part of her entertainment legacy.  When she received a letter from a fifteen year old fan named Jane Crough, who told her that she’d be watching the Saturday night live broadcast with her friends as part of her sixteenth birthday, Cilla sent a camera crew to Jane’s house the night of the broadcast to surprise the young girl and to wish her happy birthday.  The stunned teenager, in her homemade dress and wide eyed astonishment, talked to Cilla over remote and the “surprise” became a hit with viewers.  Cilla began getting letters from hundreds of people across England telling them about special people and events that should be featured on the show.  Cilla would read the letters and, when one caught her attention, her and her team would be on the road to surprise another viewer in what would become one of the most popular segments of the show.

For fourteen seasons Cilla Black gave everyday people their fifteen minutes of fame while honouring their achievements, fulfilling wishes and reunited long lost family members on “Surprise Surprise.” She became beloved by audiences for her sense of fun, easy going nature and ability to connect empathetically with her audience.

“Cilla” ran for eight seasons and ended in 1976.  By this time Cilla Black’s recording career had declined, but she had reinvented herself as a popular television host.  Cilla floated around through various televisions specials and the occasional cabaret for the next few years, but in 1984 she was back with television audiences in a brand new series for ITV.  This was “Surprise Surprise,” which became a staple on British television for the next fourteen years.  In “Surprise Surprise” Cilla doubled down on her popular segments from “Cilla” and made the entire show about her special connection with the public and dedicated each e4pisode to surprising everyday people in lighthearted, endearing and often emotional ways.  From doing public pranks on unsuspecting people “Candid Camera” style and chatting with studio audience members about their lives and accomplishments Cilla and her team helped fulfill wishes and surprise her audience week after week.  One of the show’s most endearing features was locating and reuniting long lost family and friends with one another for on camera reunions.  Through tears and tons of emotion, this feature became a hallmark of the show, and in total it was estimated that 130 families were reunited on “Surprise Surprise” by Cilla and her team.

Cilla Black in boxing gloves for her “Cillagram” for Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” “Cillagrams” were often comedic music videos that helped Cilla Black honour the people who she surprised. Often filmed with tongue firmly placed in her cheek, the videos have recently gone viral on different social media planforms.

But the most popular segments were the ones where Cilla would be out in the streets with a camera crew visiting unsuspecting people whose family or friends had written in letters about them and what made them truly special people.  These segments would have Cilla honoring people who were local volunteers or community members that made everyday differences in people’s lives, people who had achieved certain accomplishments or anniversaries, or had lifelong dreams that Cilla and her team would help them achieve.  Cilla would burst into the places where the people worked or lived with her rousing catch phrase “Surprise, surprise” and the camera would catch the shock and astonishment on the unsuspecting honorees face.  Cilla would quickly use her warmth and empathy to make the person comfortable and do an impromptu interview, and then what would often follow would be what became known as a “Cillagram.”

Cilla Black hosted both “Suprise Surprise” and “Blind Date” for ITV until 2012, but remained an television icon with the British public until her sudden death from a head injury in 2015.

A Cillagram was an often farcical music video created by Cilla and her team that would feature the honorees of the visit, along with their friends, family and colleagues.  In the video Cilla would sing a recognizable hit of the day and the ITV team would put together what would often be a cheesy, although rather professional looking, music video to accompany the song.  Now these things were a farce, and Cilla’s tongue was placed firmly in her cheek.  But, when watched in conjunction with the interview that proceeded the video, there was a real sweetness to these presentations.

And this is what people are watching on Tik Tok.  It’s an aging Cilla Black singing songs most often missuited to her vocal style, in videos that were made for light disposable television for the unsophisticated masses.  This is the kind of television that would be much like “America’s Funniest Home Videos” or highly scripted game shows that are popular in North America.  But, what has happened is the videos are being presented without the surprise and no indication of what the honoree’s back story, thus cutting out all the context or sweetness and, most of all, Cilla’s masterful ability of connecting with people and her special way of presenting the accomplishments of everyday people.    When searching for Cillagrams on the internet I find it discouraging that, for the most part, the introductions are almost always not included, stripping the narrative and humanity out of them and reducing them to farcical nonsense.  The complete segments I’ve been able to find are few and far between, but even then they are not available for imbedding so I’m not even able to include them on this page (for an example of one of the better ones, you can see Cilla do Kool and the Gang’s “We Are Family” with full surprise here).

In 2017 her hometown of Liverpool erected a statue of CIlla Black on Matthew St, not far from where the Cavern Club, where she worked as a coat check girl during the hey day of the British Invasion, once was located.

“Surprise Surprise” ran from 1984 to 2001, and after running eight highly rated specials, Cilla came back for an additional series in 2003 (it was later revived from 2012 to 2015 with new host Holly Willoughby).  In 2012 NBC even made an attempt to bring the series to America filming a pilot hosted by former MTV hottie Jenny McCarthy, but the series did not translate to American audiences at all.  It should be noted that during her time hosting “Surprise Surprise,” Cilla also hosted a second popular ITV series, “Blind Date,” which was a game show that connected singles together much in the mode of “The Dating Game” or “Elimidate” did in North America  Cilla ended her affiliation with ITV in 2004 but remained a British entertainment icon.  However, by this time she was best remembered as a TV presenter beloved for her sense of mirth, relatability and close relationship with the public.  Cilla died suddenly in 2015 at the age of 72 as the result of a head injury received from a fall while on vacation in Spain.  But in 2017 her entertainment legacy was properly honored when a statue of Cilla was erected in Liverpool on Matthew St near where the Cavern Club once was.

So, this is what the Tik Tokers are watching.  The “Surprise Surprise” memes are Cilla singing her theme song, while the strange video clips are segments of the comedic “Cillagram” segments in which Cilla was actually in on the joke.  It’s all quite irrelevant, but what I find sad is that the laughter seems to be at Cilla instead of in spite of her.  Cilla was not the frumpy and daft lady she seems to be in these bizarre video clips, and I think the laughter is detrimental to what her entertainment, and especially her musical, legacy should be.  I only hope while binging on the worst of Cilla Black, some kids will stumble across the best of Cilla Black as well. 

But, in all honesty, if Cilla were alive today, I think she and I probably would agree with my attitude on this matter.  I think she’d honestly be pretty amused by her sudden fame amongst the youth.  After all, she was always in on the joke, she loved to laugh, and she certainly loved a good surprise.

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