Sunday 15 December 2019

Review: Cilla - 'fizzy, upbeat and a bit light dramatically, but Cilla is scintillatingly played by Sheridan Smith'

Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black in ITV's 'Cilla'
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black in ITV's 'Cilla'

Pat Stacey

Director Richard Attenborough took three hours and 27 minutes to put the life of Mahatma Gandhi up on screen. It took Franklin J Schaffner just 17 minutes short of that to tell the story of General George S Patton.

***

So where, you might ask, does ITV get off in devoting three whole hours — although it’s nearer two-and-a-half when you subtract the ad breaks — to a biopic of Cilla Black?

It’s not even the full story; it covers only the eight years it took the bubbly Liverpudlian, who was born Priscilla White, to go from a starry-eyed teenager, hopping and screaming along to The Beatles and The Big Three with the other girls in the Cavern Club, to one of Britain’s most-beloved entertainers with her own top-rated Saturday night show on BBC1.

But given the attention to detail that has gone into the three-part Cilla, with a screenplay by award-winning writer Jeff Pope, the time lavished is entirely justified. Black, scintillatingly played here by Sheridan Smith, who does all her own singing, wasn’t always associated with cheesy light entertainment shows such as Blind Date and Surprise Surprise. In the 1960s, if not at any time since, she was regarded as cool; the naff came much later.

One of the biggest compliments you can pay the production team behind Cilla is that where most Sixties-set dramas recreate the look of the decade, this often feels like it was made in that decade. The colours are saturated, like those of an old Technicolor movie grown richer and deeper with time, and the crisp direction and gorgeous photography bring the Merseybeat explosion to vivid life.

It’s 1960 and Cilla is working in a typing pool — a source of pride to her mother (Melanie Hill), who boasts to a neighbour that she’s the first in the family to be considered “suitable for office work”.

What Cilla really wants to be is a singer. Overcoming her nerves, she takes to the stage of The Cavern to belt out a couple of songs with local bands The Big Three and Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.

When family friend and Hurricanes’ drummer Ritchie Starkey, aka Ringo Starr (an astonishingly accurate impersonation by Tom Dunlea), is poached by The Beatles, he tries and fails to persuade Cilla’s parents to let her go to Hamburg with the band.

Cilla’s famous friend is not her only admirer. She has also caught the eye of local lad Bobby Willis (The White Queen star Aneurin Barnard), a flash Harry who claims to be a singer-songwriter and drives a variety of fancy cars. He’s really a baker in Woolworth’s and rents the cars to impress the girls.

Cilla finds out but agrees to let him become her manager. It starts disastrously, with Bobby having to supplement Cilla’s earnings, without her knowledge, out of his own pocket. But he gradually develops a knack for negotiating.

But an even bigger, better negotiator looms into view: The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein (Ed Stoppard). John Lennon (Jack Farthing) persuades Epstein, who’s looking to sign a female singer, to give Cilla an audition. It goes disastrously wrong when nerves get the better of her and she’s soon back amid the clatter of typewriters.

The tone of this first episode was largely fizzy, upbeat and a bit light dramatically, though it didn’t try to soften up the callous way Black was ready to ditch Bobby for Epstein, or indeed ignore the simmering religious bigotry that once caused Liverpool to be dubbed “the Belfast of England”.

Cilla is available on the ITV player

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