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Expert Comment: ITV's 'Cilla' miniseries

Cavern Wednesday 24 September 2014

As ITV's Cilla Black biopic continues to impress reviewers, Dr Mike Brocken, Senior Lecturer in Music at Liverpool Hope and Director of the University's MA in The Beatles, Popular Music and Society, looks at the series' historical accuracy.

Cilla (ITV) has been entertaining enough, but it set itself quite a task - to historicise a still-living British popular music artist within a particular 'era'  (i.e. that of Merseybeat) which is already chock full of mythologized claims and counter-claims. Therefore it must have been something of a poisoned chalice for any researcher/screenwriter to undertake.

In an interview on the One Show prior to the first episode Sheridan Smith, who plays Cilla in the series, did actually say something like 'It's not history'. Well, that's clear from the start. Within a very short time into episode one we could clearly see this to be true: for example an overhead gantry crossing Mathew Street [!], together with characterizations of members of the Big Three that were not at all accurate in a historical sense. This was joined in the second episode by the most peculiar siting of a private phone mounted in a red telephone box, the inaccurate use of (albeit fictional) picture sleeves for Cilla's first two 45rpm releases, and the lack of bleached blonde locks on Rory Storm (not to mention Cilla and friend sitting atop of Everton Park - which wasn't there in 1963). All such vignettes suggested that what we have here is a 'ripping yarn' concerning Cilla's early years - which is fair enough in a dramatic sense.

However there are more serious concerns: the unceasing portrayals of dereliction and bomb sites across north Liverpool, the rampant stereotyping of Brian Epstein while in London, the at times extremely dodgy local accents, based on current Scouse vernacular, rather than the 1960s, and the consideration that the Cavern was somehow a multi-racial space (I have been reliably informed by my good friend Joe Ankrah (formerly of the Chants, who were briefly backed by the Beatles) that the only black people in the Cavern were usually on stage) all suggest under-researched contexts.

Notwithstanding the above, Sheridan Smith performs very well and her voice is mostly good and at times exhilarating. While not attempting to imitate, she does capture Cilla's vocal nuances, grain and (for me) charm pretty well. I was always a fan of Cilla Black and still think that Cilla's versions of 'Anyone Who Had a Heart' and 'Alfie' (the latter, next week presumably?) were outstanding; Her version of Randy Newman's 'I've Been Wrong Before' is also definitive.

So, the series so far has been something of a 'curate's egg'  - good in parts but unsatisfactory as a whole; dependent, as it appears to be upon at times crude stereotyping and a lack of 'thick' historical research.

Dr Mike Brocken is Senior Lecturer in Music at Liverpool Hope and Director of the University's MA in The Beatles, Popular Music and Society.

Image: The Cavern Club. Copyright James West (2006) Licensed under CC BY-ND. - 

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