Two years ago Sheridan Smith really became a household name thanks to her performance in the wonderful ITV drama Mrs Biggs for which she eventually won a BAFTA award. Smith later collaborated with Mrs Biggs writer Jeff Pope on The Widower which aired on ITV earlier this year. After two fairly dark dramas, Smith and Pope’s newest joint venture is a little bit jollier as it focuses on the national treasure that is Cilla Black.
In writing Cilla, Pope said that he started at the final scene and then worked backwards. He did this after learning that when Cilla’s manager Brian Epstein died there was a copy of the contract for Cilla’s BBC series next to his body. Instead of exploring the Cilla that we all knew, Pope wanted the drama to focus on her rise to stardom and her literally coming from nowhere. He hoped that his drama would also be a non-patronising look at the working classes as the series explores Cilla’s home life and her relationship with her parents.
As Cilla, Sheridan Smith’s biggest challenge was not trying to do an impression of her and instead to learn her little mannerisms. With each member of the cast being given a research pack, Sheridan was able to capitalise on early interviews Cilla gave during the height of her recording career. One of the most striking elements of the entire series is the fact that Smith performs all of the songs herself and took a number of singing lessons to prepare for the part. Sheridan and Jeff both were eager for the actress to perfect Cilla’s two voices; both the rock n roll tone she uses in the earlier Cavern Club scenes and the softer voice she discovers when she enters the studio for the first time. The pair of false teeth that Sheridan wore throughout the drama also came in handy as it allowed her to perfect Cilla’s accent.
Jeff was quick to praise Sheridan’s signing and said that there was something indefinable about the way she performed the songs. Although Pope knew how well Sheridan could act, he didn’t realised quite how good her singing voice was. Even though this is the pair’s third collaboration, Jeff and Sheridan still appear to be eager to work together in the near future with the former claiming that he wants the latter in every drama he produces.
As much as the drama focused on Cilla’s career, Pope was eager for it to equally to tell the love story between Cilla and her future husband Bobby. Pope based some of the drama on his own experiences of seeing the couple together during his time as a researcher at LWT. Pope talked about the way in which Bobby would hold Cilla’s hand and watch at the side of the stage while she was filming some of her most popular TV shows. After talking with the couple’s son Robert, he realised the way the couple behaved all made sense and it really helped him to chart the evolution of their romance.
Pope presents Bobby as a modern man, somebody who was able to carry Cilla’s handbag and was comfortable being the man behind the woman. Even before their romance, the drama depicts how Bobby took on the domestic duties at home and cared for his father and brother. Actor Aneurin Barnard had a tougher time trying to recreate Bobby’s mannerisms as very little footage of him exists. He mainly had to rely on recounts of the man’s life from both Cilla and Robert. Barnard’s other struggle was dying his naturally dark hair to recreate the blonde locks of Bobby; which included having to bleach his eyebrows on a regular basis.
As the other man in Cilla’s life, Ed Stoppard also had a lot of research to do in order to correctly portray Brian Epstein. In a similar way to Smith, Stoppard had a few old interviews to work with and used them to perfect the cadence of Epstein’s voice. Stoppard also went to great lengths to recreate Epstein’s signature hairstyle and became known as the ‘king of the hair curlers’ on set. Stoppard felt it was crucial to perfect the music manager’s signature curl as it represented a man who was constantly trying to reinvent himself.
The other major character in Cilla is the city of Liverpool itself and in particular the Cavern Club which is heavily featured in the first episode. Producer Kwadjo Dajan talked of the crew’s desire to use the original Cavern Club to shoot these scenes as well as the recreation of the venue in ‘The Beatles Story’ museum. However neither were particularly practical filming locations primarily due to their low ceilings and the fact that they didn’t have a room for a lot of movement. Luckily the crew found an area at the bottom of their production space which was a perfect place to recreate The Cavern Club to the original spec.
In the third episode of the drama, we learn that Bobby was offered the chance at his own singing career but the idea was quickly dismissed by Cilla. It’s this moment that paints Cilla in a different light and exposes the fact that Cilla wasn’t always the kindest of people. Pope explained how Cilla was keen for her life not to be viewed through rosy spectacles and wanted him to portray as someone who could be quite blunt. Robert added that he didn’t feel his father ever thought he’d missed out on something and that he didn’t want to let his ego ruin the relationship he had with Cilla.
Pope went on to comment on how receptive Cilla was to the whole process and how open helpful she was during the scripting of the drama. Pope found that Cilla was particularly helpful when he was trying to recreate the Liverpudlian vernacular that runs throughout the series. However, at the time of the press launch, Cilla was yet to watch the drama partly because she felt it would be hard to watch a recreation of the romance between her and the love of her live.
Cilla begins airing on ITV on Monday 15th September at 9.00pm