Cilla: Sheridan Smith shines as the legendary entertainer in this lightweight biopic (Spoilers)

by Matt D
Sheridan Smith

Sheridan Smith

Over the last two years, I feel that Sheridan Smith has definitely established herself as one of British TV’s top actresses, with roles in dramas as diverse as Accused, The 7:39 and The Widower, Smith has proved that she can adapt her style over a number of different genres.

But it was her fantastic portrayal in Mrs Biggs that first put Smith on the map and landed her a Best Dramatic Actress Bafta in the process. The man behind Mrs Biggs, writer Jeff Pope, has now cast Smith as the lead in his new biographical drama about the early life of one of the country’s most recognisable icons, Cilla Black.

With Cilla, Pope’s aim is to show us the star before she became a household name with such programmes as Blind Date and Surprise, Surprise. Tonight’s episode definitely showed us a different side to Cilla as, in the opening scene, we saw that she was too shy to volunteer to sing on stage with local band The Big Three.

The year is 1960 and Cilla White is working in a typing pool but dreams of being a superstar singer, or at very least, running her own beauty salon. I felt that Smith was completely convincing as the bratty seventeen-year-old who loved to go out to clubs with her friends. Unfortunately, her youth was the first stumbling block in her quest for fame after her father forbade her from going on a German tour with Ringo Starr’s first band, Rory Storm and The Hurricanes.,,

But Cilla’s voice continued to be heard in the clubs, with John Lennon allowing her to appear on the stage at The Cavern Club with The Beatles. Cilla’s performances go down so well that she is eventually a hit with audiences, who love her down-to-Earth nature as much as they do her terrific singing voice.

Sheridan Smith Aneurin Barnard

As well as charting the rise of her career, Pope’s drama looks at the romance between Cilla and her future husband Bobby Willis. Blonde-haired baker Bobby is smitten with Cilla almost instantly, and pretends to work in a music studio in order to impress her. Cilla is taken with Bobby primarily as she thinks he’s older than her, and drives a fancy-looking car. But when its revealed that neither of these things are true, Cilla kicks Bobby to the kerb almost instantly. However, he perseveres and she agrees to take him on as her manager after he impresses her with his supposed negotiation skills.

I personally enjoyed the way in which Cilla and Bobby’s relationship progressed as Pope presented it as a fairly sweet-natured courtship. But I wasn’t a fan of the scenes in which we saw Bobby’s home life, including the way he’d taken the role of home-maker following the untimely death of his mother. He was in charge of the washing and the ironing whilst his father and brother Kenny sat around in their vests making fun of him. The fact that Bobby’s protestant father was unhappy with his sons dating Catholic girls was also significant due to Cilla’s religion. However, I felt that the scenes that featured the Willis men on their own dragged the pace of the episode down, and it was in these moments that my attention truly lapsed.

One thing that Cilla does get right though is the period detail, and it appears that the production team have gone all out to recreate the sights and sounds of the time. Even if the opening subtitle didn’t tell us we were in Liverpool in 1960, I felt it would become apparent quite quickly due to the fact that Cilla and her friends were about to enter The Cavern Club…

The Cavern itself is lovingly recreated, and the camera gets among the baying audiences to let the viewers at home experience what it was like to be in the crowd watching some of the biggest bands of the time. The musical numbers that the respective bands performed got my toes tapping and definitely added to the overall entertainment value of the programme.

Meanwhile, the other sets, most notably the White family’s living room, also have that old-fashioned feel to them which once again adds a large amount of authenticity. But the one thing that makes Cilla stand head and shoulders over the majority of other musical biopics is the fact that the lead actress performs all of her songs live. Sheridan Smith adds another string to her already impressive bow by belting out some of the rock ‘n’ roll numbers that Cilla sung on the Liverpool club scene. I feel it takes a special actress to sing so well, but at the same time convince us she’s playing a character that most of the British public are familiar with.

Sheridan Smith

Although I believe that this series will ultimately be best-remembered for Smith’s musical performances, I still think that she gives a solid and realistic portrayal, when she’s not signing. As I previously mentioned, I think that Smith is utterly believable as the teenage Cilla trying to find a way to start her singing career. Smith easily conveyed Cilla’s forceful personality as well as her naivety when it came to certain matters such as money and men.

Furthermore, Smith had great chemistry with Aneurin Barnard who, as Bobby, made us realise why Cilla eventually fell head over heels with him. Barnard’s portrayal of the cocky baker was spot on as he made his character a likeable jack-the-lad who desperately wanted to win Cilla’s heart. Just as Smith does, Barnard also performs Bobby’s musical moments himself, and I have to say that he has a rather impressive singing voice as well. Great support is lent by the fantastic duo of John Henshaw and Melanie Hill as Cilla’s parents, with the latter in particular stealing the show at some points.

My one major criticism of this first episode is that it doesn’t really go anywhere, and I ended up feeling that little had happened over the course of forty-five minutes. However, the fact that Cilla’s musical dreams were dashed before they’d even been realised means the end of the episode feels incredibly anticlimactic.

I think that Pope’s love of Cilla’s story may have meant that he sacrificed a well-paced narrative in favour of a drama that looks at every inch of her career. As a result, a lot of this episode feels like filler, and I think that Pope gave us very little reason to return next week. Thankfully though, Pope’s reliance on his lead actress has paid off as its Smith singing voice that I’ll be tuning in to hear over the next two weeks. The opportunity to hear the actress perform ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ and ‘Alfie’ is too good to miss. My one hope is that the pace of the story picks up in order to match the quality of the performance given by the lead actress.

What did you think to Cilla? Did you enjoy Smith’s central performance?

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