With such real-life dramas as Appropriate Adult, The Widower and Lucan to his name you’d be forgiven for thinking that Jeff Pope can only deliver programmes that focus on the darker side of life. However his latest work, a dramatisation of the early life of Cilla Black, is full of lighter moments and plenty of toe-tapping sixties tunes.
The opening scene of the drama’s first episode sets the tone for the series perfectly as we see Cilla (Sheridan Smith) run down the street to meet her friends outside The Cavern Club. The Cavern, and Liverpool’s club scene, play a vital role in this first episode as we see Cilla appear at the clubs as both spectator and performer. Cilla’s initial performing experience comes courtesy of volunteering to sing a number during sets from some of the biggest bands of the era. The drama’s production team appear to have taken great care to recreate the Liverpudlian club scene and particular in their building of a replica version of The Cavern. The camera’s focus on the 1960’s youth enjoying their nights out really adds something to the musical scenes and definitely immerses the audience in the scenes. Meanwhile, Cilla’s initial shot at fame; touring Germany with Ringo Starr’s first band, is shot down by her father who feels she’s too young for that sort of thing. However, she continues undeterred with her dreams of pop stardom which may be boosted when she performs on stage with Ringo’s new band, some chaps call The Beatles.
As well as charting Cilla’s rise to stardom, Pope’s drama is also focuses on the love story between the star and her future husband Bobby (Aneurin Barnard). Pope portrays Bobby as a cocksure charmer who is completely smitten by Cilla from the first moment he sets eyes on her. Although he goes out of his way to impress her, she quickly wises up to his schemes and gives him the heave-ho quite early on. It’s only when he acts as her manager during the latter half of the episode that the sparks start to fly and the couple starts to rely on each other. It’s Bobby who first notices that the audience are charmed by Cilla’s down-to-Earth nature as much as they are by her brilliant voice. There’s nothing particularly cynical about the romance between Bobby and Cilla and in fact I found it quite sweet-natured. What I didn’t care for was the extended focus on Bobby’s home situation and his relationship with both his father and brother. It does seem that Pope wanted to show that Bobby had taken on the home-maker role in his family following his mother’s death but this didn’t explain the endless dodgy jokes exchanged between he and brother Kenny. I personally felt that any time that Bobby was on-screen without Cilla, the pace of the episode lagged and I for one was willing to see Cilla back on the screen.
None of this is the fault of Aneurin Barnard who I found to be a charming presence as the cheeky bakery employee. Barnard’s winning smile and brilliant singing voice make him easy to watch as the man who wishes to win Cilla’s heart. Barnard shares winning chemistry with Sheridan Smith as they portray the early courtship of the long-lasting couple. Cilla’s worries about her father’s reaction to her dating the protestant Bobby are brilliantly realised in the way that she regularly bats her beau away before things reach further than the heavy petting stage. Smith herself is on top form as Pope once again creates a dream role for the woman who is quickly becoming his muse. The one thing that people will be taking away from the drama is the fact that Smith sings all of Cilla’s songs live, which is no mean feat for any actress. Not only does she sing excellently, but she also makes you believe that you’re listening to Cilla singing rather than just an actress doing an impression of her. Smith also makes the most of her background as a comic actress in the drama’s lighter moments most notably in a scene involving Ringo Starr’s mother’s hair. Reliable support is provided by Melanie Hill and John Henshaw as Cilla’s parents both of whom convince as regular working class parents.
The problem with this first episode of Cilla is that it features very little story and by the end credits it feels like very little has happened. The focus on Cilla’s first shot at fame and her missed opportunity is interesting but isn’t strong enough to maintain an entire episode. The majority of the episode felt like a focus on the Liverpool music scene as a whole rather than a biography of Cilla in general. Thankfully I was privileged enough to see the entire series at a screening and can say that the series improves on an episode by episode basis. However, upon watching episode one on its own, I realised how lightweight it was and particularly how dull the scenes with Bobby’s family were. I do feel that Pope could have made Cilla into a well-paced two-parter rather than a baggier series with three instalments. That being said I would still recommend that you seek out the entire series especially for the musical numbers and Sheridan Smith’s brilliant singing voice which may well net her a second TV Bafta in the near future.
Cilla Continues Monday’s at 9.00pm on ITV.