Sunday, 5 October 2014

Television Review: Cilla

I rarely watch any ITV drama these days, mainly because I usually hate the dumbing down of the channel's television output and increase in commercial breaks within their programmes.

However, I made an exception in the case of Cilla, the dramatisation of the early music success of Cilla Black and her relationship with road manager/ boyfriend/ future husband Bobby Willis and manager, Beatles Svengali, Brian Epstein.

All to little is made of Cilla's chart hey-day in the 1960s. It was an era where her popularity rivaled that of British contemporaries Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw and Lulu. Audiences tend not to remember Cilla beyond her 80s game shows Blind Date and Surprise, Surprise

My early memories of Cilla are still very much of her as a popular singer turned TV star, fronting her own prime-time TV show in the early 70s, singing duets with either Cliff Richard or Marc Bolan and surprising unsuspecting members of the public by tapping on their door on a Saturday evening as they were watching her show (she never came to our house which as a five-year-old I always hoped she would!). So, a drama on Cilla's early years was certainly going to have some appeal to me.

Cilla redresses the balance of any preconceived ideas today's audiences may have on Cilla Black, peeling back the veneer of tv presenter and game show host  to the sassy Liverpool girl that sang at Liverpool's Cavern Club in the early 1960s alongside Kingsize Taylor, The Big Three and a (then) little known group called The Beatles.

The drama follows Cilla's struggles and how she was supported and encouraged by Bobby as well as close friend Ringo Starr. Cilla's failed audition with Brian Epstein, her eventual chart success and the struggles that followed including an unsuccessful bid for American stardom. There are also glimpses into the sad private life of Epstein, something rarely given so much detail in Beatles dramatisations but perhaps given more clarity here.

The lead actors really make Cilla compulsive viewing for anyone who has a love for 1960s music. Sheridan Smith is excellent as a young Cilla, making her believable while bringing a natural sassy flare to the role. Smith also rises to the challenge of showing how Cilla's public persona evolved as well as displaying her unseen behind the scenes ruthlessness in the third episode. The treat undoubtedly is Smith's renditions of songs such as A Shot Of Rhythm N Blues, Anyone Who Had A Heart, You're My World, Step Inside Love and Burt Bacharach's marathon Alfie recording session.

Similarly Aneurin Barnard brings Bobby Willis from the background to the forefront, highlighting how he really pulled things by emerging as a strong person from  a difficult family background to ultimately been the rock Cilla needed in her life. There are also teasing glimpses of Bobby's talents as a singer and songwriter and how he could equally have been a star in his own right.

Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein and Elliott Cowan as record producer George Martin help add authenticity to the drama, while the recreation of Cavern club and Iron Door performances in earlier episodes brought a vital energy to Cilla's story. 

I thoroughly enjoyed Cilla, both her and Bobby's story was one that clearly had to be told and proved compulsive without the usual need to have an overblown sex, drugs and rock n roll storyline.

Cilla was all the better for focusing on the energy of the music and the evolving love between Cilla and Bobby, set against the atmospheric backdrop of 1960s Liverpool lovingly recreated by the shows designers. As John Lennon wrote in 1967, "Love is all you need" and that was certainly put into this dramatisation.

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