Perky but prosaic: Sheridan Smith’s Cilla Black biopic lacks jeopardy

Cilla Black’s story is not exactly on-the-edge-of-your-seat exciting, for all that she knew the Beatles.

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Cilla
ITV

By the time Cilla Black impinged on my teenage consciousness, she had become, seemingly quite deliberately, a kind caricature of herself: an irredeemably cheery Saturday-night blast of colour and Scouseness involving shoulder pads, appliqué jackets, patent shoes, jangling bracelets, barely there catchphrases, much winking, nudging and eye-rolling and a barrel-load of red hair dye.

Oh, the hair! As springy as heather and as crimson as a freshly lanced boil, it could be seen even through net curtains from the opposite side of the street. “Take it away, our Graham!” she would yell on the set of LWT’s Blind Date – cue a voice-over summary of the blokes or girls behind the screen in TV’s second-lamest show (the lamest being her other series Surprise Surprise). In spite of this – or perhaps even because of it – we loved her. In its mid-1980s pomp, Blind Date was watched by 18.2 million people.

ITV must be banking on this fondness, or at least the residues of it, to ensure that its biopic of the singer-turned-light entertainment queen is a ratings winner (Mondays, 9pm). Yes, it stars the adorable and wondrously talented Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and, yes, the love of her life, Bobby Willis, is played by the disturbingly sexy Aneurin Barnard.

But Black’s story is not exactly on-the-edge-of-your-seat exciting, for all that she knew the Beatles, for all that she was managed for a time by Brian Epstein (incidentally, Ed Stoppard plays Epstein, a bit of casting so bizarre that I laughed out loud when I first caught sight of him looking all patrician down the Cavern Club).

Black was a nice Catholic girl who mostly did as her daddy told her and was happily married to the same man for more than 30 years (her relationship with Willis, a Protestant, passed for rebellion in her world). Her career as a singer was safe but suc­cessful (spoiler alert: she had two number one hits in 1964). In the 1980s, she was the highest-paid woman in British television. This series, then, rather wants for what we might call jeopardy. It also has a somewhat cliché-ridden script by Jeff Pope (Philomena, Come Rain Come Shine). Everyone says “la” and everyone hangs out in milk bars, where they play with their straws and affect nonchalance whenever a member of the opposite sex appears.

The older people are stern but kindly and think that office work is terribly posh (Cilla begins her working life in a typing pool, something her mother boasts about to a pal over tea and a fag). The younger people are all about their threads and their backcombed hair (if the singing doesn’t work out, Cilla’s dream is to be a hairdresser, for which reason she practises with the peroxide on Ringo Starr’s mum), and when they dance they wiggle their heads prettily from side to side. Yes, like that. It would be nice to be able to tell you that this is the 1960s as you’ve never seen them before. The truth is: this the 1960s as you’ve seen them a thousand times before.

It goes without saying that Smith gives it her all. She sings all of Cilla’s numbers herself, including a version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” that she fluffs in front of Epstein – and she sings them well. Her Scouse accent is great. You couldn’t dislike her performance if you tried. She’s so perky and cute.

But personally, I think it would be lovely if she could now be cast in something that might give TV audiences a different idea of her altogether, rather than only in these dreary girl-next-door biopics – she was last seen playing Mrs Ronnie Biggs – which have little to tell us about history and even less about people.

Anyone who saw her in Trevor Nunn’s 2011 revival of Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path (she was Doris) will know that she can, for instance, do clipped stoicism even better than chirpy ebullience. Still, if the audience sticks with this for episodes two and three, it will be down to Smith and Smith alone.

Perhaps that’s the gig’s attraction for her. Where will the script go? I’ve no idea. (The series ends before the TV career starts.) Black is on record as having smoked a joint, so maybe look out for that. The coughing and the spluttering will doubtless be extremely characterful. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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