Saturday, November 26, 2016

Cilla (ITV, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Soundbreaking episode KPBS showed an oddity: the first episode in a three-part 2014 mini-series on Britain’s Independent Television Service (ITS) — their commercial channel, which explains why this is a relatively brief show (45 minutes instead of the 57 minutes of a typical BBC “hour” show) — on the career of Cilla Black, Liverpool songstress who became the only act signed by manager Brian Epstein other than the Beatles to have truly long-term success. She rose from a precarious existence in working-class Liverpool to major stardom in England — though her attempt at a U.S. breakthrough flopped — and so far the first episode of this show is basically a revival of the proletarian dramas British film studios were churning out in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, with some interesting moments when members of the Beatles and the other big Liverpool pop groups — the Big Three, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes (Ringo Starr’s original band) and King Size Taylor and the Dominoes — are shown playing in realistic duplications of the Cavern Club and Liverpool’s other underground (literally — they were almost all located in basements) nightclubs in the early 1960’s. Cilla is played and sung by Sheridan Smith, with Aneurin Barnard as her cute, blond and incredibly creepy boyfriend (later husband) Bobby Willis, a typical boor who keeps threatening to blow her career while thinking he’s helping it. The show reaches a climax when Cilla, backed by the Beatles, wins an audition at the Cavern for Brian Epstein — and blows it by singing George Gershwin’s “Summertime” instead of one of her rock specialties. It’s O.K. entertainment but the main thrill is getting to see actors impersonating some of the great heroes of the Liverpool beat scene — and the show’s casting director, Gertie Pye, deserves great credit for finding actors to play the Beatles who not only look but sound credibly like the originals — especially Kevin Mains as Paul McCartney. (For some reason Paul has always been the most difficult Beatle for biopic makers to cast.) — 11/22/16


I’ve been waiting for a chance to comment on the last two episodes of a curious but interesting British ITV (Independent Television Service, Britain’s private TV network) mini-series from 2014, Cilla, a biopic of the early years of Liverpool singer Cilla Black (acted and sung quite capably by Sheridan Smith). She was born Priscilla White, daughter of a working-class family, and though at one point she seems to have studied to be a beautician — at least we see her experimenting first on her mother’s hair and then on her own — but eventually she’s declared “suitable for office work,” which her mom (Melanie Hill) and dad (John Henshaw) think is a major privilege and a rare chance for advancement out of their working-class origins. But Cilla (as she’s quickly nicknamed) also likes rock ’n’ roll and likes to hang out at the Liverpool “beat” clubs in the early 1960’s to see the top bands of the city’s music scene, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, King Size Taylor and the Dominoes, and the Big Three. (There were quite a few other bands on the scene, including one called the Beatles which were considered lesser talents then but whom you’ve undoubtedly heard of since.) Rory Storm’s drummer, Richard Starkey a.k.a. Ringo Starr (Tom Dunlea, a bit taller than the original but still credible in the role), thinks Cilla has a voice and encourages her to sit in when the bands call on women in the audience to come up on stage and try out a song or two. Cilla is at first painfully shy about doing so, but she starts to develop a stage presence. She also acquires a sort-of boyfriend, Bobby Willis (Aneurin Barnard), a tall, striking blond man, who agrees to be her manager — but only manages to cost her a few jobs when he insists on her getting two pounds a night when the bands she wants to sing with say they can only afford one.

At one point Cilla quits singing altogether but, in order to remain on the scene, becomes a hat-check girl at the Cavern Club, Liverpool’s best-known rock club. She watches the ascension of another girl singer, Beryl Marsden (Gemma Sutton), who looks like she’s headed for stardom after Brian Epstein signs the Beatles to a management contract, he places with with EMI’s Parlophone record label, they become sensationally successful with their second record “Please Please Me” and … well, you know the rest. Epstein signed a lot of the Liverpool acts and steered them to Parlophone and its producer, George Martin, where they so dominate the British pop charts that during the 52 weeks of 1963 Martin-produced records top the British charts for 37. (EMI’s response to all the money Martin’s records were making them was to send him a letter saying that his salary was now too high for him to qualify for a Christmas bonus. It was an insult that rankled him for the remaining 52 years of his life.) Epstein’s strategy for breaking other Liverpool acts was not only to get them on Parlophone and have Martin work their magic on them (though the Big Three escaped the Epstein-Martin net and signed instead with Decca, which famously turned down the Beatles after giving them a recorded audition) but to have John Lennon and/or Paul McCartney supply a song for their debut record. The first episode of Cilla ends with a disastrous audition at the Cavern in which Cilla — billed by mistake as “Cilla Black,” which she decides she likes as a stage name even though her dad gets kidded about it (he says the people at his job are telling a joke about whether he’s evolved “because we don’t know whether you’re Black or White”) — bombs because she chooses to sing George Gershwin’s “Summertime” instead of a rock number. (Six years later Janis Joplin would turn “Summertime” into a soul-rock number and do it quite well.) But when Brian Epstein’s plans for Beryl Marsden fall through (for reasons screenwriter Jeff Pope never bothers to explain) he takes another look at Cilla and signs her. The Beatles’ song he outfits her with is “Love of the Loved,” which she records with some obnoxiously loud trumpets providing the backup — she complains that all the studio musicians playing behind her are middle-aged, and Martin stops a take because she’s pronouncing the words “care” and “there” as “curr” and “thurr.” (In the final record they come out as “cahh” and “thahh.” Later she recorded “Ol’ Man River” and sang “scared” as “scaghed.”)

It only gets to #37 in the British charts, but Epstein has another trick up his sleeve: he wants Cilla to record the Burt Bacharach-Hal David ballad “Anyone Who Has a Heart.” It’s already been a hit in the U.S. for Dionne Warwick, but her record company, Scepter, doesn’t have a British distributor and Epstein sees a chance to get Cilla to cover it. When he takes the song to George Martin, Martin thinks he’s offering it to Shirley Bassey, the Black contralto he’s also producing and who’s best known today for singing the theme to the James Bond movie Goldfinger. Epstein astounds Martin by saying he wants him to record it with Cilla, and when Martin questions whether she can handle a sophisticated song like that, Epstein gives that doe-eyed look he was so good at and says, “I know my Cilla. I know she can do it.” The sessions are a nightmare because Burt Bacharach is there to conduct the record personally, and he calls for take after take even after both Cilla and Martin, the record’s nominal producer, think they’ve got a good version in the can. In the film Cilla turns it into an endurance test and ultimately nails the song to Bacharach’s satisfaction. It goes to #1 on the British charts and makes her career. She starts touring the U.K. with Bobby Willis as her road manager, though she’s too “good” a girl to let him into her room until they’re actually married and she’s also hamstring by Epstein’s insistence that she present herself to the world as “carefree and single” so young straight boys will fantasize about her. Epstein’s own sexuality becomes an issue in the plot when we see him at a private Gay club — the anti-sodomy laws under which Oscar Wilde had been convicted were still very much in effect in the mid-1960’s but the organizers of this establishment must have had some sort of underground “protection” deal with the authorities, since they allow people to meet there and embrace and kiss, though they don’t allow actual sex on the premises. Epstein sneaks out to this club and is warned off “Terry,” the meanest and most hostile man on the premises, but of course he’s instantly attracted to him and takes him to his room — where Terry beats him up after they’ve finished having sex. The depictions of Epstein’s sex life in episodes two and three of Cilla make it seem like he never had sex with a man who was actually Gay — just with young straight boys doing “Gay for pay” and showing their disgust with the whole thing by beating up their clients afterwards. After both the encounters depicted in the film — the second one of which ends with him telling his butler, whose job seems to be mostly to pick up the pieces after his boyfriend de jour has roughed him up, “I disgust myself” — he shows up for his next appointment with Cilla and Bobby with a black eye, which he explains with the sort of preposterous explanation (“I banged my head on the kitchen door”) one’s used to hearing from wives whose husbands are beating them.

One thing the real Cilla Black said about the real Brian Epstein that doesn’t make it into this movie was how fashion-conscious he was — remember that at one point he had studied dress designing and had wanted to pursue that as his career, only his parents shot it down — she said a major part of her success was due to Epstein’s impeccable taste in what she should wear and how she should be groomed. Cilla herself comes off as something of a bitch — when Epstein and Martin want to offer Bobby Willis, a talented songwriter and singer, a contract of his own, Cilla insists that he not take it because “I need you to look after me” — and in 1965, when Epstein decides that Cilla is ready to conquer the U.S., he books her on the Ed Sullivan Show (ITV’s casting director, Gertie Pye, scored with actors who look like reasonable simulacra of the Beatles but couldn’t find anyone as tall, thin or imperious as George Martin and totally blew it with Ed Sullivan; he’s played here by an actor named Jay Benedict who looks more like an American football player than the fabled TV host — but then we could hardly expect her to be as lucky as Robert Zemeckis, who in I Want to Hold Your Hand, his dramatization of the Beatles’ first Sullivan Show appearance, got Will Jordan, already established as a quite good Sullivan impersonator, to play him) and gets her a gig at the prestigious Persian Room nightclub. Alas, Cilla meets the fate of a lot of nightclub performers — an audience more interested in dining and (especially) drinking than in anything that’s going on from the stage — and in the middle of her run she rings up Bobby and angrily demands that the two go home. Back in Britain her record sales are slipping — Brian Epstein explains to her that the run of a recording act at the top of the charts is usually about three years — and he says she should think about doing something else, like hosting a TV show. She’s reluctant, but Epstein negotiates a contract for her to do a show for the BBC just before he dies in August 1967, and she signs the contract that’s his last legacy to her and her show, Cilla, is a huge success.

The credits do a quick wrap-up at the end of the program: Cilla and Bobby Willis finally got married in 1969 and they stayed together, with him managing her as well as being her husband, until his death in 1999. (Their son Robert took over as her manager.) Cilla was still alive when this series debuted in 2014, though it was rerun when she died the following year. When I watched the first episode of Cilla I was struck at how much it seemed like one of the proletarian “kitchen-sink dramas” the British film studios were making when the events it depicts were taking place — writer Pope and director Paul Whittington drench the screen in working-class atmosphere, and Pope’s script also makes a big dramatic issue over the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Liverpool — remember that a lot of Liverpudlians were emigrants from Ireland (including John Lennon’s family; on the liner to the 1974 album Walls and Bridges he published a genealogical note on his Irish lineage), and they seem to bring their religious hatreds with them. Bobby Willis’s father disowns Bobby’s older brother for marrying a Catholic girl, and that’s one more reason Bobby holds off on marrying Cilla as long as he does because she, too, is from a Catholic family. Cilla is an interesting side take on the Liverpool music scene of the early 1960’s — it was a local “scene” as powerful and talent-packed as San Francisco in the late 1960’s and Seattle in the early 1990’s — and it’s fascinating to see the Beatles as bit players in someone else’s music story even though posters have pointed out all the inaccuracies in how the Beatles were depicted (in particular the rather off-base portrayal of how Ringo became the Beatles’ drummer). Cilla Black was the only one of Brian Epstein’s clients, other than the Beatles, to achieve enduring success, and though she never cracked the U.S. market she was an enormous star at home and fully deserving of this intriguing and fascinating tribute. — 11/26/16