Being Cilla: My journey back to the Merseybeat 60s

Cilla is a three-part drama starring Sheridan Smith
Cilla is a three-part drama starring Sheridan Smith
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Tipped to pick up a host of awards before it has even been screened, Phil Penfold catches up with the star of Cilla, Sheridan Smith.

Was it a stroke of genius – or just a simple printing error? Maybe mercurial manager Brian Epstein did want to change her name to “something more dramatic”, or was it that a journalist just get a little confused while typing away in the heat of the moment and with a deadline approaching? Either way, the world lost Priscilla White, and “discovered” Cilla Black, and the rest is television and recording history.

Cilla is a three-part drama starring Sheridan Smith

Cilla is a three-part drama starring Sheridan Smith

And now, in an extraordinary, powerful and at times very moving three-part drama series, viewers will be getting a glimpse of the rise and rise of the erstwhile pop sensation, where the young woman from “Scottie Road” in Liverpool is played by one of the region’s finest young actresses, Sheridan Smith, who comes from Epworth in North Lincolnshire.

She confesses: “I was absolutely amazed when ITV came along and offered me the lead role in Cilla – after all, I don’t sound like her, I don’t have her accent, and (to my mind) I don’t look remotely like her. What convinced me? The fact that it was written by the lovely Jeff Pope, and I worked with him two years ago on Mrs Biggs. We seemed to have established a really good, strong working relationship, and to say that when Jeff told me that he’d written Cilla with me in mind, well, saying that I was ‘deeply flattered’ just doesn’t go half-way to describing it”.

What makes Cilla all the more remarkable is that Pope was committed to telling the truth about the singer and her early years, and refused to gloss over some of the darker moments of her life as she carved out her career.

“A lot of today’s audiences will remember Cilla from shows like Surprise, Surprise, and Blind Date, and many will have forgotten that she was an incredible presence in the pop charts in the Sixties and early Seventies,” says 33-year-old Sheridan, who is wearing a blonde wig, but won’t say why.

“As you’d expect, there’s a lot of singing in Cilla, and it’s all me – and all done live on the set. No lip-syncing at all. I won’t pretend that it was easy, and it took an awful lot of work, but I had to be true to the story and achievements of this real-life person, and I think I’ve pulled it off.”

She sat for weeks on end listening to Cilla’s recordings, and watching “as much video and DVD footage (there’s a lot on YouTube) she could find, from appearances in 1964 onwards to discover how she sang, and what her mannerisms are.

“I did not want to do her a disservice in any way. And one of the things that Jeff and I discovered was that she has two voices. One is the powerful belt-it-out, whack ‘em dead sound that she developed when she was singing to boisterous audiences at venues like The Cavern Club in Liverpool, and the other was the much softer, expressive one that she uses in a recording studio. But this is not an impersonation, no way. It is my version of Cilla.”

Sheridan won a BAFTA for her performance of Charmian Biggs in Mrs Biggs (based on the life story of the wife of the Great Train robber, Ronnie) and the whisper in the industry is that she is almost certainly to be nominated once again for Cilla. There’s even a rumour that, should she win, the real Ms Black may be invited to the ceremony hand over the trophy. But that is all in the future.

Pope says that his way of writing is “to always think of where the character is at the various points of the story. What their motives are, what their reaction may be”. That it seems to work in Cilla is in no small measure due to Sheridan, and to the other main players in the cast – among them Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Aneurin Barnard as Bobby Willis, who she later married. It isn’t well-known that Bobby, who died fifteen years ago in October 1999, was also a singer of some talent. He was even offered his own recording contract by Epstein – but Cilla vetoed the plan.

“She could be selfish, there’s no doubt about that,” says Sheridan, “and also ruthless. But that determination got her where she wanted to be. She knew precisely where she wanted to go, and what she had to do to get there. She was (and is) very careful to get the balance between work – and life. When Jeff wrote all of that in, and sat down with her, she looked at the script, and said ‘What a cow I was’. And then she said that it was the truth and that, today, she had no regrets about it.”

Bobby’s mother had died when he was Young and he took over her duties, making the meals, putting the washing through, ironing the shirts. He just got on with it. And, when he and Cilla got together, he was her rock, her support.

When Epstein took over her career, he got Cilla her first recording contract with Parlophone (her first disc, Love of the Loved, made only a modest mark on the charts, peaking at number 35) and Bobby was shunted to one side, as her road manager. Then followed a pair of smash hits, Anyone Who Had a Heart and You’re My World, both of them went straight to number one. “Bobby was all for her sticking to rock and roll,” says Sheridan. “Epstein convinced her that ballads were more her style – and he was right.”

It was only on Epstein’s death, in 1967 (the inquest verdict was an accidental overdose of sleeping pills) that Bobby became her full-time manager – and husband. Bobby had wanted Cilla to go on with her singing and recording career. Epstein, shrewdly, had been negotiating behind Cilla and Bobby’s backs. Bizarrely, when he was discovered lying dead on his bed, alongside him was a contract from the BBC, offering Cilla her first television series, in which she would star, and introduce showbiz guests. It was unsigned. But Bobby took over, saw that this was the best way forward, and the result, a year later, was the ratings-topping Cilla. It was to launch Miss Black into a totally new territory, and within a couple of years she was the highest-paid female on British television – a position that she held for decades.

“Jeff and I went to dinner with Cilla, and she was very frank and open,” says Sheridan. “She even gave me her telephone number, in case I wanted to talk anything through with her – but I was too shy to call her – maybe now the filming is all over, perhaps I will. At the dinner, though, I babbled away like an idiot, I was so pleased to be in her company.

“She was very receptive to everything that Jeff suggested, and she understood fully what the drama had to say.

“Above all, she made it clear that she didn’t want to be seen through rose-tinted spectacles. She admitted that she had ‘very sharp elbows’, and she was also very funny about getting a ‘biopic’ at this stage in her life, and told us: ‘You normally only get something like this when you kick the bucket’. She made a big joke of it.”

The actress is full of praise for the costume designer, Amy Roberts. “We really couldn’t have done it all without her”, she admits. “She was brilliant in researching the clothes of the Sixties, an era that I now adore – I’d have loved to have lived through that time – and getting all the right costumes made. That’s not just for me and the other leads, it was right down to the extras, even those with the smallest amount of screen time. Amy dresses you from the underwear up, so that you ‘become’ your character.

“All I had to do was to whack my prosthetic Cilla teeth in, and to get into the Liverpudlian accent, pronouncing ‘care’ as ‘cur’ and ‘there’ as ‘thur’. And there was absolutely no question about her having a cameo role somewhere. She didn’t want it, and she was content to let me play the role.

“How do I feel about her now? I’ve grown up with her, and I am in awe of her, completely obsessed with her.

“She was – is – a woman in what is largely a man’s world, and she had an amazing career….”

Sheridan’s next challenge is another three-part series, this time a fictional drama called Black Work, which will see her playing Jo Gillespie, the grieving and distraught widow of an undercover policeman shot dead in suspicious circumstances.

“It’s extremely powerful stuff”, she says, “Jo goes out to discover why her husband was killed – and by whom. And emotionally it is going to be very challenging. We’re starting work on that one in a few weeks’ time, and to my delight, it’s all going to be filmed in Leeds – which means that I can get back every night to stay with my mum and dad in Epworth, and have a few home comforts thrown at me. Black Work will be out early next year, and then…well, who knows.” She still hasn’t explained the blonde wig. With that light-up-a-room smile, she giggles and says: “Now, wouldn’t you like to know!”

• Cilla will be broadc ast on ITV next month.