Sue Barker finally lays bare the game, set and match of her romance with Cliff Richard in new book


One night in October 1981, I was tucking into an Indian takeaway at home when I got a call from someone calling himself ‘Cliff, Cliff Richard’. I just giggled. I thought someone was having a laugh.

The guys in the takeaway who’d handed me my chicken tikka masala were always playing pranks on me, and I thought this was just another one.

The week before, I’d met two former members of Cliff’s 1960s backing band, but that hardly seemed relevant. I just happened to be staying in the same Brighton hotel as Hank Marvin and Brian Bennett, then midway through a Shadows tour.

As I was playing in the Women’s Tennis Association event in Brighton and they were big tennis fans, they’d decided to come to watch me compete. I was playing well at the time and had just beaten world No 1 Tracy Austin in the quarter-finals.

So I gave them tickets and they watched me win a close match against Barbara Potter in the semis, then beat Mima Jausovec in the final. I was on cloud nine, so thrilled to win a title again.

It seemed a long time since I’d been ranked number three in the world; I’d almost forgotten how good winning felt. The Shadows had cheered me on and I’d given them a hug, promising to come to their concert in London.

Then came the call from Cliff. It turned out he’d been watching the Brighton tournament from home and had been surprised to see me celebrate so warmly with Hank and Brian. 

He’d asked them for my number — and now he wanted to know if I’d like to go to the Shadows concert with him.

Game, set and match: As Sue Barker and Cliff Richard started to spend more time together, the Press picked up on their developing friendship and went crazy

Game, set and match: As Sue Barker and Cliff Richard started to spend more time together, the Press picked up on their developing friendship and went crazy

We Don't Talk Anymore: Their relationship only lasted a few months but Sue is still hearing about it 40 years on. She said she would not have gone near him if she knew that was the case

We Don’t Talk Anymore: Their relationship only lasted a few months but Sue is still hearing about it 40 years on. She said she would not have gone near him if she knew that was the case

Sue Barker pictured with her former flame, Australian golfer and entrepreneur Greg Norman in March 1979

Sue Barker pictured with her former flame, Australian golfer and entrepreneur Greg Norman in March 1979

I panicked . . . I’d never met the guy! I’d love to go, I told him, but I already had plans to go with a friend, also called Sue. Cliff suggested we make it a foursome, with Sue and I joining him and his friend Bill Latham.

In the end, we had a really, really nice night at the Hammersmith Odeon, joining the Shadows backstage afterwards and then all going out to dinner.

The next day, I was flying to Japan. When we arrived at the hotel in Tokyo, there was a telegram from Cliff, wishing me all the best in my matches and hoping to see me again. So I knew he was keen.

From Tokyo, I flew on to Australia and then to the United States. Cliff and I had a few chats on the phone, mostly about tennis.

While staying in Dallas, Texas, I watched Morecambe and Wise on TV with an American friend, Carole. Cliff was on as a guest. ‘He’s too old for you!’ was Carole’s view. ‘Ah, but he’s ever so nice,’ I replied.

In March 1982, I was due to play an exhibition match in Denmark before returning to the UK. On the phone, Cliff asked if he could come to watch.

I was shocked and felt a bit unsure about this — after all, about six months had passed since our only meeting — so I asked my brother Neil to come over, too.

When I flew back to London with Cliff and Neil, bizarrely, the snappers were out in force at the airport. In the ensuing days, we started dating, seeing as much of each other as we could. But what with him recording an album and me playing the European tour before Wimbledon, it really wasn’t that frequent. Or serious.

I spoke to Cliff in person about this many times and I made a direct request to his agent and his manager to stop bringing up our time together in interviews. It has been frustrating

 I spoke to Cliff in person about this many times and I made a direct request to his agent and his manager to stop bringing up our time together in interviews. It has been frustrating

I have to say being in Cliff’s company was a lot of fun. He got on well with my family and friends. My parents, however, were wary. They didn’t like the age difference of 16 years — I was 25, Cliff was 41 — and Dad warned me it could become a problem as we got older

I have to say being in Cliff’s company was a lot of fun. He got on well with my family and friends. My parents, however, were wary. They didn’t like the age difference of 16 years — I was 25, Cliff was 41 — and Dad warned me it could become a problem as we got older

We were, as he later said repeatedly, ‘close friends’.

I took him to Wimbledon, just feeding him balls and letting him have a good time. He struck the ball well. In return, he invited me to the studio where he was cutting an album. It was fun listening to him singing, and I liked Cliff — he’s warm and engaging and funny.

As we started to spend more time together, the Press picked up on our developing friendship and went crazy. I hated the attention.

It wasn’t my first experience of dating someone well-known — I’d gone out with the golfer Greg Norman in 1978-79, yet never experienced the media frenzy that accompanied Cliff. In my eyes, Greg was more famous worldwide than Cliff, but the Press had all but ignored our romance.

Our relationship had lasted just under a year. We’d bonded over our respective ambitions in sport, and travelled the world to be together whenever the professional tennis and golf schedules allowed. But our relationship started to go wrong when I was playing in Boston, Massachusetts. I knew I had to face my toughest opponent, Chrissie Evert, so I was determined to stay focused and work hard.

The phone had rung early one morning in my room — it was Greg, in the hotel reception! I went downstairs, not happy at all, because this was such a big week for me. I had to put my tennis first, I told him, and of course he understood.

Compared with the click-click-click of cameras that seemed to ambush Cliff and me, there’s probably just one photo out there of me with Greg.

But I have to say being in Cliff’s company was a lot of fun. He got on well with my family and friends. They were all impressed by his behaviour with fans — he never flinched when he was approached in public, and was always happy to do a personalised autograph.

My parents, however, were wary. They didn’t like the age difference of 16 years — I was 25, Cliff was 41 — and Dad warned me it could become a problem as we got older.

That summer of 1982, I was troubled by a knee injury and played badly at Wimbledon. 

I flew to America, still hoping I could play in the U.S. Open. But a surgeon told me I needed an operation and would have to miss it. For a second opinion, I called a fantastic physio back home, who told me: ‘Get yourself back here.’ 

Thank goodness I did because, sure enough, the knee issue was a knock-on effect from a hamstring problem and I didn’t need an op.

So I was back in my Wimbledon flat, which I’d bought in 1979. As I’d been expecting to be in America for the U.S. Open, I’d agreed to let a girl called Jill stay there. She was dating Cliff’s housemate Bill Latham and using the flat while they went on their annual two‑week guys’ holiday to Spain or to Cliff’s house in Portugal.

I was soon receiving treatment on my hamstring but feeling depressed, injured, really down, and kept calling Cliff for a chat. He was, I thought, my boyfriend. 

With Greg, we’d both made the effort to be there for each other on the phone, even when we were in different parts of the world. But Cliff wasn’t replying to any of my messages.

Meanwhile, Jill, now sharing my flat, was chatting happily every day to Bill, who was holidaying with Cliff. It didn’t make sense; I knew something strange was going on.

So I asked Jill to ask Bill to ask Cliff to get in touch. He didn’t.

Forty-eight hours later, I got a call from one of Cliff’s friends, on his behalf, saying that Cliff just wanted to cool it. Our ‘relationship’ was over. Really? He’d asked his friend to pass on this message over the phone? 

I flew back to the States, upset and angry. During the past five months, we hadn’t been seeing a lot of each other as I was on a tennis tour and he was doing an album. So it certainly didn’t feel like we’d reached a point that merited either of us being dumped by the other.

It felt to me like a friendship that had the potential to develop, rather than a significant romantic relationship, because we hadn’t taken it far — and I’m not just talking about sex. 

When my previous relationships had ended, we’d talked everything through, about why it wasn’t working or couldn’t work. This time, I was absolutely floored. It was so odd. And Cliff didn’t speak to me for weeks.

Eventually he did make contact again, saying he’d missed me, and could we be friends? I said yes, and we started going out for dinner. 

There was a brief stage when I hoped something might be rekindled, but I soon realised we were just going to be friends. 

The Press, of course, continued to focus on us as a couple whenever we were seen out together, but from that time onwards we were always with other people, never à deux. And this sort of friendship continued for a year or so.

Over the years, we stopped seeing each other much, yet remained friends. The only thing we fell out over was the fact that he kept harping on about me in interviews — ‘I didn’t love her enough to propose,’ and so forth.

This went on and on. It really upset me. In fact, Greg Norman had been much more important in my life than this brief time with Cliff. Yet it’s this relationship that is still hanging around my neck. It’s the one that just won’t go away.

I was desperate for Cliff to meet someone else and take the focus off me. One day, the late BBC presenter Jill Dando, who was a sort of mentor in the early days of my broadcasting career, asked if I’d mind if she tried to make a go of it with Cliff. I couldn’t have been happier to give her my blessing. That obviously didn’t come to anything either.

Six years later, I married my husband Lance [Tankard, a Metropolitan Police detective]. We’ve now been together for 34 years and he remains my best friend, my rock, and makes me laugh every day.

The day after our wedding, we woke up to the headline: ‘Why I Couldn’t Marry Sue — by Cliff.’ I said to Lance: ‘Bad luck, mate, you’ve just done it!’

I begged Cliff to have some respect for my marriage and to stop mentioning me. It would have been so easy for him to say to any inquiring journalist: ‘Sue is happily married to Lance now, let’s leave it.’ 

Twenty years on, I’d still be reading comments from him such as, ‘I didn’t love her quite enough to marry her,’ and I’d think: ‘He can’t be talking about me, surely? It never got to that level.’

Another of his comments was: ‘She asked me what I was doing next Saturday . . . and I didn’t like that — it was a bit intrusive or serious.’ Really? I don’t ask my husband what we’re doing next Saturday; I tell him.

It seems ridiculous to me that someone who is apparently considering marriage doesn’t like being asked what he is doing next Saturday.

If someone had told me that my relationship with Cliff would last a few months but I’d still be hearing about it 40 years later, I wouldn’t have gone near him. Frankly, it looks silly now that he’s still talking about a relationship that was never really more than a friendship.

But the subject came up yet again last year on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories. Piers asked Cliff outright: ‘Did you love Sue?’ And Cliff said: ‘I loved being with her, but it wasn’t something that was going to lead to our marriage.’

No, it wasn’t!

I never spoke about our relationship. But he continued to paint a picture of me waiting at the altar for him to say ‘yes’. Yet this relationship didn’t enter a universe where I was considering marriage to him.

When I flew back to London with Cliff and Neil, bizarrely, the snappers were out in force at the airport. In the ensuing days, we started dating, seeing as much of each other as we could

When I flew back to London with Cliff and Neil, bizarrely, the snappers were out in force at the airport. In the ensuing days, we started dating, seeing as much of each other as we could

I begged Cliff to have some respect for my marriage and to stop mentioning me. It would have been so easy for him to say to any inquiring journalist: ‘Sue is happily married to Lance now, let’s leave it.’

I begged Cliff to have some respect for my marriage and to stop mentioning me. It would have been so easy for him to say to any inquiring journalist: ‘Sue is happily married to Lance now, let’s leave it.’

If someone had told me that my relationship with Cliff would last a few months but I’d still be hearing about it 40 years later, I wouldn’t have gone near him. Frankly, it looks silly now that he’s still talking about a relationship that was never really more than a friendship

If someone had told me that my relationship with Cliff would last a few months but I’d still be hearing about it 40 years later, I wouldn’t have gone near him. Frankly, it looks silly now that he’s still talking about a relationship that was never really more than a friendship

Lance and I still see him now and again. We went to his 50th birthday party, and joined his 60th birthday cruise. We also went to support him at the Royal Albert Hall after that horrible BBC/police raid. There’s no animosity there.

And it will come as no great surprise to him that I say all of the above, because I spoke to Cliff in person about this many times and I made a direct request to his agent and his manager to stop bringing up our time together in interviews. It has been frustrating.

Yes, I really enjoyed our early friendship, but continuing to harp on about me simply isn’t fair, not just to me but to Lance, who has been constantly reminded why someone else wouldn’t marry his wife. It’s not respectful.

I have tried to laugh it off. Remember that rainy day in 1996, when Cliff was asked to entertain the Centre Court spectators while they waited for play to resume?

In my later incarnation as a broadcaster, I was presenting the Wimbledon coverage with Des Lynam, trying to come up with topics of conversation to fill in the time, when Cliff started singing. You have to hand it to him; he’s the consummate performer.

‘I never thought I’d actually play on Centre Court,’ he quipped, as he got the crowd clapping, swaying and singing along under their umbrellas and rain ponchos.

Standing behind him, singing and waving their arms, were the tennis stars Pam Shriver, Liz Smylie, Andrea Jaeger, Virginia Wade, Martina Navratilova, Conchita Martinez and Gigi Fernandez.

Full of mischief, Des turned to me and said: ‘Come on, get down there, Sue!’

I said: ‘I’m not doing it, Des. It will be on the front page of the papers tomorrow . . . “Sue and Cliff reunited at Wimbledon”.’

But Des persisted. ‘Come on, you’ve got to do it for the programme. And we’ll just have a laugh about it.’

OK, I thought. Maybe we could have a laugh about it — because it was that far down the line and I was very happily married. So I agreed to Des’s playful request and went down to the stand.

As I stood at the bottom of the stairs, waiting to be allowed entry by a steward, Cliff, in a pastel-check jacket and mint-green tie, was giving it his all, belting out Singin’ In The Rain, The Young Ones, Summer Holiday, Living Doll and Congratulations to an audience that included a rather bemused Joanna Lumley and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent.

He christened his new backing singers ‘the Supremes’, as in ‘supremo tennis players’, and said they should have brought their rackets to play air guitar.

As Des said: ‘Who needs tennis — the man is an absolute star . . . the only thing that worries me is that Cliff doesn’t know it’s on television and we might get one hell of a bill!’

If you were watching that day, you’ll know that I never did join Cliff. The truth is that just as I was about to go up the stairs, he started singing Bachelor Boy, so I thought better of it.

The steward seemed to have the same thought. He looked at me and said: ‘Sue, I’d give up now if I were you.’ And I nearly cried with laughter.



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