I was never much of a Cilla Black fan. Lads my age who bought Beatles and Stones records in 1964 and ’65 wouldn’t be seen dead with a Cilla Black record in their collection but someone must have bought them as Cilla had five top ten hits in those years, including two number ones with ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’ and ‘You’re My World’, and the latter was in the repertoire of Sandra & The Montanas, the Cross Hills based group for whom I played guitar in 1966. They loved that song in the Working Men’s Clubs in the Bradford area where we played most weekends, especially the dramatic chorus which our Sandra (Winterburn, later Beresford - she married Dave, the bass player), in a knee length blue cocktail dress and high heels, would belt out almost as convincingly as Cilla herself.
Just as convincing was the truly marvellous Sheridan Smith in the three-part biopic Cilla on ITV which ended on Tuesday of this week. In truth a more accurate title would have been Cilla & Bobby, for the trilogy devoted as much time to the relationship between her and Bobby Willis, her manager and future husband (played in bittersweet fashion by Aneurin Barnard), as it did to the progress of Cilla’s singing career, from getting up on stage at the Cavern to sing with ‘beat combos’, one of which was you-know-who, to topping the charts and trying to break in America. Meanwhile her other manager, Brian Epstein, played by Ed Stoppard with increasing authority as the series progressed, was caught between sky-rocketing professional success and his more earthy personal needs.
But the series belonged to Smith who conveyed the perky naiveté of young Cilla, the typist with big dreams in the first episode, through to the more knowing and manipulative Cilla towards the end. The scenes where she sang – and Smith really did sing, and sing well – were fabulous. I never knew that Cilla was a rocker at heart, and it wasn’t until I read Mark Lewisohn’s mega Beatles biography Tune In that I realised she did more at the Cavern than work as the coat-check girl at lunchtimes. Indeed, the researchers seem to have sensibly used Mark’s book, which doubles as the definitive story of Mersey Beat, as their prime source: 'swinging' Cilla really did get on up stage with The Beatles to sing ‘Summertime’ (on March 15, 1961) and John did call her ‘Cyril’; and Cilla’s pal Pat was an early girlfriend of Ringo when he was drumming for Rory Storm & The Hurricanes, with whom Cilla sang from time to time, as she did with The Big Three and King Size Taylor & The Dominos. It does seem, however, that Cilla’s failed ‘audition’ for Epstein occurred at the Majestic Ballroom at Birkenhead, not the Cavern, at least according to Tune In.
But this was a minor quibble in a series that was immensely effective in its portrayal of time and place. Liverpool was grotty in those days, its streets still scarred by Hitler’s bombs, its terraced houses grimy, its population sharply divided by religion. Cilla lived above a barber’s shop whose proprietor required the White family to enter by the rear, a humiliation they would endure until their daughter could buy them a detached house on a leafy estate. John Henshaw’s turn as Cilla’s dad was a superb cameo, his artlessness – ‘I know about these things. I was in the merchant navy, you know’ – as engaging as the protectiveness he showed towards Cilla.
The series spared no blushes when it came to portraying Epstein’s torrid private life, his fondness for young men who might turn violent, and the scene in which he got down on his knees to plead with Cilla not to leave him was genuinely disturbing, a credit to Stoppard. By this time a combination of drugs and the ever-present threat of exposure and blackmail had reduced Epstein to a shell of a man and, fittingly, his death brought Cilla to a rather melancholy close.
I’d recorded it and when it was all over I needed to cheer myself up, so I rewound back to those scenes in the Cavern when teenage Cilla pushed her way through the lunchtime crowds to get up on stage and, her devoted talisman Bobby encouraging her from the sidelines, sing her rock'n'roll songs, moving like a Supreme, shaking her red hair, as innocent and happy as she would ever be. I hope the real Cilla was watching. She would have been proud of the way Sheridan Smith turned back the years with such authenticity and sincerity.