Cilla is a 2015 ITV miniseries that chronicles the early life and career of Cilla Black (1943-2015) from just before her discovery by Brian Epstein until his death. Consisting of three 45-minute episodes, the high-quality drama captures the excitement of Liverpool in the early Mersey Beat era at the time that, despite widespread poverty, Britain's youth were discovering and created their own music, distinct from that of their parents and not simply imported from America. Award-winning actress Sheridan Smith astonishes in the lead role, with both her singing and acting.
Many dramas have been made about a talented act from Liverpool who performed in the Cavern until being discovered by Brian Epstein and recorded best-selling records in London's Abbey Road Studios with producer George Martin before heading across the Atlantic to America and appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. Yet this is not the story of the Beatles, but a similar, overlapping story about a young, female singer who puts her career before her relationship and, surprise surprise, eventually emerges as one of Britain's best-loved entertainers of the 20th Century.
Liverpool in 1960 is bitterly divided between Catholic and 'Proddy' Protestants, although the youth from both sides are more interested in the phenomenon that is rock 'n' roll. There is a huge queue all around the block outside the Cavern, for The Big Three are performing. They invite one of the girls in the audience onstage to perform with them. In the audience a young Cilla White, despite having her friends' encouragement, is too shy to put her hand up and put herself forward.
Cilla is a young girl who lives in a humble flat with her mum and dad. They don't even have a front door - the main entrance is through the barbers downstairs. Though her mother is very proud that Cilla has been declared 'suitable for office work' and works as a typist, Cilla plans on owning her own hair salon and often practices on friends and neighbours, such as Elsie Starkey. Elsie's son Richard Starkey is a drummer in a band, although he is better known by the stage name Ringo Starr. Knowing how well Cilla can sing, Ringo gets Cilla to sing onstage with his group, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. He persuades Rory Storm to invite her to be the group's female singer when they perform in Hamburg, but her father flatly refuses to allow her to go.
Depressed that she has lost her chance of fame and fortune, Cilla meets Bobby Willis soon after. Impressed that he has a car (and not realising that he is merely renting it), she believes him when he says that he works in the music industry as a songwriter and would like to manage her. In fact Bobby works in Woolworths bakery. His home life is becoming increasingly difficult as his brother Kenny has married a Catholic girl, only to be disowned by their father. Cilla, meanwhile, continues singing with various Liverpool acts in different Liverpool venues and is mentioned in the very first issue of Mersey Beat. However, because the editor couldn't remember her surname, with the deadline approaching her name is published as Cilla Black rather than Cilla White.
When George Harrison dates one of Cilla's friends, she dreams that she too might attract the attention of a manager like Brian Epstein. The Beatles trust him 'because he can talk proper, without an accent like'. Although Bobby becomes her manager, encouraging her to interact with the audience and arranging for her to get £2 a gig with Kingsize Taylor, this clashes with an audition with Brian Epstein. Cilla puts this before Bobby's gig, hoping Epstein will be her manager rather than Bobby. However, when she sings 'Summertime' trying to be sophisticated, she ruins the audition and runs out crying. The episode ends with Cilla trapped in an office, working as a typist.
In Liverpool in 1963, Cilla now has a part-time job working as a cloakroom girl in the Cavern. When Bobby visits, he tries to impress her with his songwriting and persuades her to sing again. Soon she is again performing onstage with various acts, including Rory Storm, Kingsize Taylor and the Big Three. When Brian Epstein spots her performing at the Iron Door club, he is impressed and persuades her reluctant family to allow him to manage her. Although her stubborn father is upset that she is to be known as Cilla Black rather than Cilla White, he signs the contract as the piano he bought from Epstein's North End Music Store has been reliable, and he believes that implies that Epstein will be too. Cilla signs on the condition that Bobby is appointed her road manager, and an audition in London with George Martin is arranged.
At the famous Abbey Road studio, Cilla meets George Martin, who initially is unsure of her talent. Her nerves exaggerate her Liverpudlian accent when recording a version of 'Love of the Loved', so she sings 'thur' not 'there' and 'cur' instead of 'care'. Yet after gaining support from Bobby she passes the audition and Bobby's song 'Shy of Love' is agreed to be the B-Side of her first single. When it is released, Cilla waits outside a phone box near her house for the call to tell her how the song is doing in the chart, but is heartbroken to learn it is only number 35.
Brian, meanwhile, is struggling with his sexuality in an era in which homosexuality is still a crime1. Epstein is attracted to the wrong sort, particularly violent men. Bobby feels sidelined in Cilla's career and also fears being disowned by his father for loving Cilla, a 'Scotty Road Catholic'.
Following the failure of 'Love of the Loved', Epstein persuades George Martin to allow Cilla to record a version of 'Anyone who Ever Had a Heart', a song that had been released in America by Dionne Warwick. Martin, convinced that the song could only be recorded by a talented diva such as Shirley Bassey, was initially reluctant but Cilla proved herself capable of rising to the challenging vocals and sings it perfectly. 'Anyone Who Ever Had a Heart' becomes a Number One hit.
This episode begins in 1964 in Abbey Road's recording studio, where Cilla records 'You're My World'; the song becomes Cilla's second consecutive Number One and leads to her performing at the London Palladium. Yet despite this success, the strain is showing in Cilla and Bobby's relationship. As Brian Epstein believes all his artists must appear single, just as John Lennon is forbidden from mentioning his wife Cynthia, Cilla cannot mention being in a relationship with Bobby. Epstein's personal relationships continue to decline, with his penchant for violent, abusive men sickening himself.
Impressed with Bobby's talent, Epstein and publisher Dick James2 offer Bobby a recording contract to write and sing his own songs. Furiously jealous, Cilla insists he turns it down as she doesn't want to compete with him for Brian's attention. She insists that the only way the relationship will work is if Cilla sings and Bobby is content to look after her.
Cilla's next release only reaches Number Seven3. She is told that her follow-up has been written by Burt Bacharach himself, but unimpressed she states, 'You can't call a song 'Alfie', it sounds like a dog'. This song, written for the 1966 Michael Caine film of the same name, is intended to introduce Cilla to the lucrative US market. Recording it is difficult as Burt Bacharach insists on numerous takes before eventually being satisfied. Before her departure for the States, Cilla buys her parents a new home. Bobby feels increasingly sidelined and is concerned that his father is wasting away, especially as he refuses to let his sons near him.
Cilla travels to New York, only for her popularity to stall. Like The Beatles she appears on America's Ed Sullivan Show, but a geographically-challenged and disinterested Sullivan introduces her as being from 'Wales in England'(!) When first Cher and then Dionne Warwick release versions of 'Alfie' in the US, Cilla is all-but ignored and insists on returning to the UK. Cilla feels neglected by Brian Epstein, who is managing numerous other artists, and she and Bobby argue and split-up. Shortly after, Bobby's dad dies of pneumonia.
Back in Blighty Cilla's next record peaks at 24, but she and Bobby get back together. Brian Epstein tells Cilla that from now on he is only going to manage her and the Beatles. Fearing that the record-buying public have begun to lose interest in her, he wants to launch Cilla's next career before her singing career ends completely. Bobby feels Epstein has been choosing the wrong songs for Cilla and that she should change manager. As the Beatles' five-year contract is about to expire, and they are not interested in touring any more, Epstein is worried that they no longer need him to be their manager. He pleads with Cilla to stay with him. Cilla agrees not to make any final decisions.
Soon after, on 27 August, 1967, Brian Epstein is found dead of a drug-related overdose. Next to his body is found a BBC contract for Cilla to host her own television series, which would be broadcast in 1968.
|Cilla Black OBE||Sheridan Smith OBE|
|Bobby Willis||Aneurin Barnard|
|John White||John Henshaw|
|Kenny Willis||Kent Riley|
|Priscilla White||Melanie Hill|
|Brian Epstein||Ed Stoppard|
|Robert Willis||Andrew Schofield|
|Johnny 'Hutch' Hutchinson||Danny Burns|
|Adrian Barber||Jordan Luke Gage|
|Ringo Starr||Tom Dunlea|
|George Martin||Elliot Cowan|
|Rory Storm||Jamie Muscato|
|Paul McCartney||Kevin Mains|
|John Lennon||Jack Farthing|
|George Harrison||Michael Hawkins|
|Kingsize Taylor||Nic Greenshields|
|Elsie Starkey||Mary Duffy|
|Danny La Rue||Ceri Dupree|
|Dick James||Tom Keller|
|Burt Bacharach||Daniel Pirrie|
|Ed Sullivan||Jay Benedict|
|Beryl Marsden||Gemma Sutton|
Cilla was made by the same team behind acclaimed drama Mrs Biggs (2012), written by Oscar and BAFTA-nominated writer Jeff Pope. This had also starred Sheridan Smith, who won the Best Actress BAFTA Television Award for her portrayal of Charmian Biggs, wife of Ronnie Biggs who is best known as the Great Train Robber. She has since been awarded the OBE for her services to drama. Pope had known that when Brian Epstein died he had a contract from the BBC for Cilla Black to begin a television career. Feeling that this would make a dramatic ending for the series, he worked back from there.
The series took over a year in total to make, including research, and includes phenomenal attention to detail. Pope naturally interviewed Cilla and her son Patrick and was lucky enough to build up a trusting relationship with them. Cilla was frank about being single-minded in her career goals, even if that, in her words, 'meant using sharp elbows' to ensure she succeeded where others did not. Cilla did not object to that coming across on screen, with her only proviso apparently being a request for there not to be any sex scenes or nudity in the miniseries (which there are not).
Double Olivier-award winning actress Sheridan Smith spent three months taking daily singing lessons to learn how to sing the same way as Cilla, and also studied her mannerisms. The performances were recorded in the world-famous Abbey Road studio, which is where Cilla had performed many years earlier. Although the Beatles only appear briefly, Kevin Mains taught himself how to play the bass left-handed to be able to emulate his hero Paul McCartney.
One of the main challenges in making the series was finding parts of Liverpool that still resemble the early 1960s. Cilla's home in Scotland 'Scottie' Road4 is now a dual carriageway and so the exterior of her flat above the barbers was filmed at Holt Road while the interior scenes were filmed in a pub. Although the houses are 1930s terraces, all scenes in which they feature had to be changed through computer animation to remove modern satellite dishes and windows and insert traditional sash windows instead. This technique was also used in order to recreate the 1960s Liverpool skyline of factories, smoke and chimneys. Liverpool's Adelphi Hotel stood in for London's Kenilworth Hotel as well as New York's Plaza Hotel. As the original Cavern Club was demolished in 1973 to make way for Liverpool's unbuilt underground railway, a nearby warehouse stood in for the club instead.
Another challenge was finding contemporary vehicles. Most 1960s vehicles that have survived have been lovingly looked after by their owners, complete with gleaming chrome. As some of the vehicles, especially the van, had to look well-used, the owners had to be persuaded to allow the production team to cosmetically apply paint in a way that gave the illusion of the vehicles having been bumped and battered while remaining undamaged. Costumes were also a challenge, with many commissioned based on clothes that Cilla wore, while others were found in charity shops. A vintage second-hand shop was also used to find the furniture and other interior items that would have been found inside homes in the 1960s.
One of the series' undoubted highlights is the soundtrack, including the strong performances by the cast, in particular Sheridan Smith performing as Cilla. The songs sung all date from the time the scenes they appear are set in, perfectly capturing the spirit of the era. Although most songs are sung by Sheridan Smith as Cilla, the other Liverpool acts portrayed in the drama including The Big Three, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, Beryl Marsden and the Beatles are shown giving performances. These again have been recorded for the programme and are not the original acts.
The songs sung include:
- 'What I Say', performed by the Big Three
- 'Roll Over Beethoven', performed by Rory Storm and the Hurricanes
- 'A Shot of Rhythm and Blues'
- 'Love of the Loved', with versions performed by Cilla, Paul McCartney and Beryl Marsden
- 'Somebody's Always Trying To Take My Baby Away'
- 'Long Tall Sally', performed by Paul McCartney
- 'Bad To Me', performed by Kingsize Taylor
- 'Slow Down'
- 'Shy Over Love', performed initially by Bobby and later Cilla
- 'Some Other Girl'
- 'Anyone Who Ever Had a Heart'
- 'You're My World'
- 'Dancing in the Street'
- 'Don't Answer Me'
- 'Step Inside Love'
(Where a group is not mentioned, the song is sung by Cilla.)
Many of these songs have been recorded by the Beatles, including 'Roll Over Beethoven', found on With The Beatles, 'A Shot of Rhythm and Blues' (a BBC recording is available on Live at the BBC), 'Boys', found on Please Please Me, plus 'Long Tall Sally' and 'Slow Down' found on Past Masters: Volume One. Two songs, 'Love of the Loved' and 'Step Inside Love' were written by Paul McCartney.
The series is a joy to watch, purely because of the strength of Sheridan Smith's performance, which led to a BAFTA-nomination. Her vocal ability is more than a match for Cilla Black's, with many newspaper reviews even suggesting that she had superior vocals. Following the programme's broadcast, Cilla Black's name featured on the music charts for the first time since 1974 as viewers were inspired to purchase her hits, particularly 'You're My World', which reached Number 40 while Sheridan Smith's version was ahead at Number 33. When Cilla died in August 2015 of a stroke following a fall in her Spanish villa, a repeat of this television series was broadcast in tribute and a compilation album, The Very Best of Cilla Black became the Number One album on the UK's Album Chart.
Importantly, the series isn't afraid to show Cilla Black in a negative light, particularly in the third episode. Despite this the series met with her approval, with Cilla sending Sheridan Smith flowers after watching it. When Cilla died, Sheridan Smith wrote:
I'm absolutely devastated to hear the tragic news about Cilla. She was the most remarkable woman, a true legend. She was so kind and helpful to me, it was a privilege to play her. My condolences go out to her family and all who loved her. She will be truly missed.
To fans' dismay, the reprise montages that begin episodes two and three are not accompanied by the words, 'And here's our Graham with a quick reminder'.
As with all biopics, Cilla is expected to present a high level of historic accuracy. With a standard technique employed to convince viewers that what they are seeing is factual, the series ends with the end credits stating 'what happened next', with a genuine photograph of Cilla and Bobby's wedding. These touches encourage us to believe that the series accurately portrays what actually happened in their lives.
On the whole the story is accurate although there are a few minor changes for dramatic purposes that do not really affect the enjoyment of the series. When they were young, George Harrison did indeed date Cilla's mate Pauline Behan and Cilla did used to do Ringo's mum's hair before working as a cloakroom girl in the Cavern. Cilla Black's stage name was created on the first issue of of the Mersey Beat, on the same page as John Lennon's famous article on How the Beatles got their name. As the show portrays, her father was very upset - she later wrote in her autobiography:
Not all the changes in my life met with the approval of me dad. Although he was generally happy for me, he didn't approve of the change of name from White to Black, which began as a misprint in 'Mersey Beat'.
Cilla did indeed sing 'Boys' with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, although this was a song that Ringo preferred to sing and reluctantly agreed to sing it with her. Cilla would later say:
We did it as a duet, and even then he didn't concede to anything. He had a microphone over the drums and I used to have to sing it bent over his kit.
In her early career Cilla's songs were indeed 'Fever', 'Always', 'Boys' and 'Summertime'. However although in the television series she repeatedly states that she doesn't want a boyfriend, in real life she did date Ted 'Kingsize' Taylor of Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes. By not mentioning this, her relationship with Bobby enjoys greater dramatic meaning.
Cilla did indeed enjoy a close relationship with Brian Epstein. Epstein had once hoped to become a dress designer before being forbidden to by his father; having a female artiste to mould and create allowed him the opportunity to express that creative part of his personality that he had been forced to keep hidden.
Cilla's recording of 'Anyone Who Had a Heart' not only was a Number One hit, but was also the decade's biggest-selling song by a female artist in the UK. Despite this, she failed to have much impact in America - only one song, 'You're My World', entered the US charts, peaking at 26. The series also implied that following this her singing career abruptly wound down, but in fact her next release was a controversial Number Two5.
As the series showed, by 1967 the drug-dependent Brian Epstein was emotionally distraught when he learnt that Cilla was considering appointing a new manager, and is recorded as saying:
There are only five people I love in the world, and that's the Beatles and you, Cilla. Please don't leave me, my Cilla, please!
Again, the series' conclusion of Brian Epstein dying and having a contract for Cilla to host a BBC television series is essentially accurate. It should, however, be emphasised that the cause of death was a gradual build-up of sleeping pills combined with alcohol and was considered to be accidental rather than a deliberate suicide attempt.
In 1968 the television programme Cilla was broadcast, with a theme tune composed by Paul McCartney. The first episode featured Ringo Starr in the very first solo appearance of a Beatle on television. As the series showed, Bobby not only married Cilla but managed her career until his death in 1999. Cilla became the UK's highest-paid female entertainer.