We don’t see Cilla Black too much anymore since she entered semi-retirement. However anyone who was around in the UK in the 1980s will know her from shows such as Blind Date and Surprise Surprise, and they may also remember that before she was a TV host she was a singer. However only those who can recall the heyday of the Beatles are likely to know much about that part of her story.
The three-part mini-series Cilla takes us back to the days when she was Cilla White (Sheridan Smith), a rock ‘n’ roll obsessed Liverpudlian teenager, who was friends with a pre-Beatles Ringo Starr, headed down to The Cavern Club whenever she got the chance and had parents who were proud that she was the first member of the family deemed good enough for office work.
Cilla has a talent for singing but getting noticed isn’t easy. Then she meets young scally Bobby Willis (Aneurin Barnard), who becomes her manager even though he has more enthusiasm than experience, and is as interested in getting Cilla to be his girlfriend as he is in her career.
Then she catches the eye of Brian Epstein (Ed Stoppard), the man who’s managing The Beatles and helping turn Merseybeat into a global phenomenon. After a rocky start he signs Cilla and helps steer her to success, even while he battles his own demons.
By the time Cilla became the highest paid women ever on British television in the 1980s, there was a perception that as a singer she was a bit naff, but this mini-series does a great job of showing why people warmed to her back in the 60s and, thanks to Sheridan Smith’s excellent vocals, why they liked her music.
It’s an interesting story, showing just how closely interconnected the Merseyside pop scene was before many of the city’s acts went to the top of the charts. The show then takes us through Cilla’s rise in popularity and her attempts to break America – along with the arrival of diva-dom. It’s held together by her relationships with Bobby Willis and Brian Epstein. Bobby and Cilla’s relationship has its ups and down but his devotion to her is one of the show’s great strengths, ensuring we stick with her too, even when she’s not being particularly nice.
However it is Epstein that is the most interesting, and at times it becomes as much a biopic of him as it is Cilla. As many know, Brian was gay at a time when it was still illegal and like many people back then, he hated himself for it. While he steered one of the most important cultural phenomena of the 20th Century, in his private life he struggled with his sexuality and became increasingly dependent on drugs and pills.
Interestingly, when he scaled back on the acts he managed in the mid-60s, the only ones he kept were The Beatles, and of course Cilla, even though she wasn’t the world-conquering titan his other act was. Eventually the show becomes about the three-way relationship between Brian, Bobby and Cilla, leading to a very poignant ending.
Cilla is a well-made and fun trip back into the swinging sixties, smartly showing us what it was like to be young and carefree as pop music started to take over, before it moves into the heady world of celebrity in a world before X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. It’s aided by some very good performances from the main cast and an excellent script that manages to handle numerous threads, giving each of them a full and satisfying story arc.
Overall Verdict: Cilla is a great show full of really cool tunes and a spirit that perfectly evokes the era it’s exploring. To its credit it never forgets the dark side of the era, and that while it was a time of fun, freedom and new opportunities for some, many were still trapped by the demons of a society that still wasn’t ready to accept them.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac