Friday, 26 September 2014


Cilla: Monday, STV

Doctor Who: Saturday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

The sound of minds being blown rippled across the land last Monday when ITV revealed that Cilla Black was friends with The Beatles. That Cilla has neglected to mention this fact at any point during her 50 year career is testament to her humility.

Joking aside – that's what that was – Cilla is a surprisingly engaging and energised dramatisation of the singer's early days. Written by Britain's very own biopic potentate Jeff Pope, whose previous credits include Fred West drama Appropriate Adult and the Oscar-nominated Philomena, it stars Sheridan Smith on knockout form as the young Priscilla White. Appropriately tough, cheeky, naive and endearing, she bravely contends with a false chipmunk overbite and oddly ill-fitting wig to deliver an affecting central performance.

And just in case you missed the blaring on-screen credit, she also does all her own singing. The real Cilla often gets a lot of stick for her singing voice – often from people who only know her as a TV presenter – but truthfully she had a powerful, if occasionally wayward, voice in her prime.

So why substitute her singing with Smith's? It's presumably because an actor miming to old recordings seldom looks convincing, so seeing as Smith can sing, the decision to use her vocals provides a satisfying realism. Another reason is that, in episode one at least, Cilla is depicted, not as a melodramatic balladeer, but as a raving rock 'n' soul belter, a period in her musical career which was never documented on tape. Smith could hardly have mimed to recordings which don't exist.

The production also benefits from an obviously large budget, with early 1960s working-class Liverpool impressively realised in all its dusty post-war glory. Cilla often recounts her hard scrabble origins with a kind of rose-tinted nostalgia, but Pope wisely tempers those sentiments with pointed references to sectarianism and an overall resistance to schmaltz.

Despite being endorsed by Cilla herself, it doesn't always depict her in a sympathetic light. Yes, she's the lovable girl next door, but she also betrays a career-minded ruthlessness and, in later episodes, a diva-esque sense of selfish entitlement. She may be ITV royalty, but this account of her life is thankfully no whitewash.

While it inevitably hits some of the usual biopic beats – there were a few awkward moments of “Hello, I'm George Harrison of The Beatles” exposition – Pope doesn't present it as a standard rags-to-riches saga. Instead he focuses on the touching romance between Cilla and budding impresario Bobby Willis. It's as much his story as hers, and Aneurin Barnard manfully overcomes his dyed-blonde resemblance to a live-action Thunderbirds puppet to deliver an exceptionally sympathetic performance. It helps that she and Smith share a charming chemistry.

Destined to be regarded as a classic, the latest episode of Doctor Who was a quite beautiful piece of television. Based around the idea of what the Doctor gets up to while alone in the TARDIS – answer: wraps himself in existential musings on the nature of fear - it combined genuinely creepy psychological horror with a strong emotional kick which, in a small yet significant way, added to Doctor Who's ongoing lore.

Witty and ambitious in the best Steven Moffat style, it was all the more impressive for being entirely ambiguous yet dramatically satisfying. The moment where the Doctor, Clara and young Danny/Rupert Pink encountered an erect entity lurking beneath the bedclothes - Freudian imagery on primetime Saturday night! - was arguably one of the most disturbing scenes in Doctor Who history.

Bolstered by canny, atmospheric direction from Douglas Mackinnon and an exemplary performance from Peter Capaldi, this thrillingly claustrophobic yarn was a reminder that Doctor Who is often more effective when delivered on an intimate scale.

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