Cilla: Interviews

Cilla Blog 600

STEP inside love…

We’ll get to my ITV interviews for their new three-part 1960s’ drama a little further down. But first:

I was just a little lad when I first saw Cilla.

My mum and dad and I were on an annual holiday to Blackpool, staying on the top floor of a packed bed and breakfast establishment.

The climb up the towering staircase was broken half way up by a penny ‘Testo Reaction Meter’.

In plain language, a test your reaction coin drop machine mounted on a wall.

I don’t remember the landlady but I do recall the eccentric Irish “maid” who slept in a bath – along with several bottles of Guinness – as her room was required for paying guests.

Never having been to the theatre before, I viewed the special treat of an evening out to see The Bachelors live at Blackpool’s ABC Theatre as on a par with Christmas morning.

Also taking into account the added bonus of two more chances to test my reaction.

Cilla co-starred on that 1966 ‘Holiday Startime’ bill, which also included Mrs Mills and Freddie “Parrot Face” Davies.

I didn’t realise it at the time but despite my dad’s endless supply of pennies, we were relatively poor.

So the cheapest seats in the back row of the upper stalls must have accounted for a significant slice of my parents’ holiday budget.


Whatever it cost, it was worth it.

As soon as Cilla – aged just 24 – appeared on stage, I was in love.

I have no memory of what she sang that night but I do have a vivid recollection of Cilla gazing up from the stage and asking, ‘Are you all right up thurr in the gods?’

Feeling sure she was talking directly to me.

Some 18 months later, allowed to stay up on a school night, I sat transfixed in front of our Rediffusion black and white TV.

When Cilla walked on to our screens in her first ever television show – BBC TV’s ‘Cilla’ – on the evening of Tuesday January 30 1968.

It was over 25 years later when I next saw Cilla “live” – in rather different circumstances to Holiday Startime.

The venue was the Penthouse Suite of London’s Dorchester Hotel.

Cilla sparkled like the champagne that flowed during our interview.

With her husband Bobby standing at the back of the room and within her direct eyeline.

Fast forward to 2014…

Sheridan Smith gives, perhaps, her finest ever screen performance as Cilla in ITV’s drama of the same name, which begins at 9pm on Monday (Sept 15).

Not least in an astonishingly good vocal performance, singing live on set throughout.

A perfect piece of storytelling from writing genius Jeff Pope.

At its heart the love story of Cilla and Bobby Willis, the fellow “scally” who later became her husband and manager.

As well as their relationship with The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein who guided her to stardom and died in tragic circumstances.

I cried when I read the scripts several months ago.

With no further need to test my reaction every time I watch the three completed episodes.

Which will be five times to date.

One of the best television dramas I have ever seen.

I still have no real idea why this wonderful production brings me – and others – to tears.

Except to say Cilla is a hugely entertaining, beautiful and truthful story about life, love, heartbreak and the wonders of a red telephone box.

With thanks to all involved from a little lad in the back row of the gods.

Holiday Startime 1966 Programme



It was an honour to be asked by ITV to write the cast interviews for Cilla, which I completed earlier this year.

Sheridan Smith (Cilla), Aneurin Barnard (Bobby), Ed Stoppard (Brian Epstein), Melanie Hill (Big Cilla) and John Henshaw (John White) all give award-winning performances.

In yet another stunning drama project from writer and executive producer Jeff Pope, director Paul Whittington and producer Kwadjo Dajan.

The team behind Mrs Biggs – also starring Sheridan – and much more.

Click on the link below to read my Cilla cast interviews in the ITV Press Pack / Production Notes.

Cilla ITV Wylie Interviews

And scroll down for my Q&A transcript from the later London press launch – held on Friday August 15 2014 – where all three episodes were screened, as in a feature film.

Younger readers who only know Cilla from her Blind Date and Surprise Suprise era may not realise just what a hugely successful singing star she was in the 1960s.

With a remarkable voice.

Listen, for example, to this recording of her singing a demo for Step Inside Love, written by Paul McCartney as the opening and closing theme song to that first BBC TV series.

You can also hear Paul on guitar, both guiding her through this new song and humming along, with the voices of legendary Beatles producer George Martin and Cilla at the end:



Q&A at the Soho Hotel in London with Sheridan Smith, Aneurin Barnard, Ed Stoppard, Jeff Pope, Kwadjo Dajan plus Cilla and Bobby’s son Robert, who was an executive producer on the drama, in the audience:

Q: From me, as it happens – could I ask Jeff what stories he set out to tell and the themes he wanted to explore?

Jeff Pope: “What happened, Ian, I was just in that mode when I was thinking about what I wanted to do next and it’s very unlike anything I’ve ever done before. I can’t remember the first thing that I was reading or what exactly it was hooked me. But I went to the end first. And I think it was when I discovered – which is true – that next to Brian Epstein’s body when he died was a contract for Cilla, the entertainment show. I knew that was my end because I thought from there onwards is the Cilla I know and most of us know. And I thought that earlier bit was worth looking into and I was hoping was going to be interesting. I think the theme of a non-patronising look at the working class. Also we live in an age now, The X Factor age. But I thought it was interesting to see how someone like Cilla had come up from literally nowhere and how she’d made it. But at it’s heart it was a love story, I think, between Cilla and Bobby but also Cilla and Brian as well.”


Q: Sheridan – how many hours of research did you have to do? It must have taken months?

Sheridan Smith: “The great thing with working with Jeff and Kwadjo and Paul Whittington the director is they give you a research pack early on. So I think it was a few months before – seven months. And we had all the footage, every interview from ’64…so I spent a lot of time watching them. There’s loads on YouTube and so much in the archives. So I tried to watch. Obviously there’s only one Cilla. And when you think of Cilla everyone does an impression of her, don’t they? And I thought, ‘Well I don’t want to do her a disservice and I’m not an impersonator. So I just wanted to try and get little mannerisms, like where she touches the hair and how she sings. I had a few singing lessons leading up to it. I was singing with my mouth wide and Cilla sings with it quite closed. So little things like that I was picking up along the way. Even during it, me and Paul Whittington were having lots of conversations. I kept kind of doubting it, going, ‘Should I be doing more Cilla?’ But then you can get trapped with every single decision you make when you’re doing a scene and you don’t really want to be over thinking that. So, hopefully, it’s enough as a nod to her. I know I don’t have Cilla’s voice but I, hopefully, got some bits of her.”

Jeff Pope: “You worked really hard on getting two voices, didn’t you? I remember talking to you about it.”

Sheridan Smith: “Yeah. When she was singing in the Cavern Club – Cilla told me this herself as well – because it was so loud and there was no ‘foldback’ (monitors on stage) you just whack it out, those rock ‘n roll songs. And then when she got in the studio and put the headphones on, she realised she had this little soft voice as well. So that’s when she started doing the ballads. That was fun to play around with. The soft voice and then the Cilla ‘honk’ – the big belting sound that comes out of her little frame. So that was fun to play around with.”


Q: Research, Aneurin and Ed?

Aneurin Barnard: “With Bobby it was a bit different. Because he was the man in the shadows, there was no footage. Which was very difficult. And sadly because we lost Bobby in ’99, I couldn’t go and talk to the man either. So it was very difficult to try to figure out, ‘Right, where do I place his voice? Where do I find his stature,’ and all this. So I had to home in on information that Jeff and Kwadjo and Paul had ‘stolen’ from Cilla’s family and Robert, the son of Bobby, who was very helpful in giving me some personal information about how his father led as a man but also as a brutal manager. So, for me, it was a lot to do with talking to people that knew him or watching interviews of people that were around him or interviewed him. And then there was a very small documentary piece where he actually talked. That was my reference to the way his mannerisms were and the way he talked. But that was later in life. This was when he was in his 50s. So I had to then reverse that into a young man and remember that he’s had 40 years of smoking cigarettes and smoking 25 a day. So then the voice changes, later in life as it does to when you’re younger. So I had to reverse the cycle, in essence. And then it was…like Sheridan is saying, you’ve got to have licence then to play the scenes and you don’t want to get too entrapped with trying to impersonate someone and you want to create the essence of what that person stood for and how they represented themselves. So, hopefully, I found a young Bobby. I’ll never know.”


Ed Stoppard: “There’s a little bit more on Brian than Bobby, obviously. I read a couple of biographies. One of which was very helpful which had extracts from his diaries and also had people’s impressions of him, their memories of him. There are also a couple of interviews on YouTube, one on British television, one on American television, both from 1964, which were useful in terms of the sort of cadence of his voice and his energy and his physicality. He appears quite circumspect. But it’s a bit of a false friend those things, because you have to remember that that is a person who is consciously on camera and so almost by definition is not behaving in a naturalistic way. So you have to take that and distill it a little bit. But once you’ve made your choice based more or less on what you might find, you’re then at the mercy of what the writer has given you. And if you feel for whatever reason that the writer hasn’t given you enough or what you were hoping for, then you’re furiously digging away. But the reverse is that if you feel that the writer has given you more than you hoped for then you just let him do the hard work and don’t worry too much about it. Which is obviously the better place to be. And because Jeff – thank you Jeff – gave us so much more than we could really have had any reason to hope for, you didn’t worry too much about portraying this real personage because it was there on the page. And as long as you got his words out in the right order then you were probably going to be all right.”

Jeff Pope: “I will add that Ed was King of the Curling Tongs on set, though. Because he has naturally straight hair and spent hours and hours waking around…”

Ed Stoppard: “That’s true. Actually, joking apart, when I first spoke to the make-up artist I said, ‘Look…’ Because he did have this very characteristic wave. And I said, ‘It’s useful for me, if no-one else, because he looks like someone who’s trying to re-invent himself.’ His hair is the hair of someone who is trying to re-invent himself. He’s got this curly Jewish hair and he’s furiously doing this to it, trying to tame it and straighten it out and be someone else. That was very helpful for me. It was very informative.”


Jeff Pope: “Aneurin had some bad hair days as well…”

Sheridan Smith: “Hairgate.”

Jeff Pope: “He couldn’t be a more dark, Celtic person…”

Aneurin Barnard: “I know. It was quite a wake-up call for a young Welsh man when he has to completely transform his mop into this bright blond, which was bleaching it every seven days for two months and having your eyebrows done every three days. It kind of questions a lot of things in a young man. But it was a good experience. It added to the experience – like Ed and Sheridan would have experienced – just kind of throw yourself into the people you were becoming.”

Sheridan Smith: “I just had to whack my teeth in, I was away. I had it easy. (laughs) The boys had the hard part.”

Jeff Pope: “She sang with her teeth in as well. That’s the thing that amazed me.”

Sheridan Smith: “Well they change the shape of your mouth so it really helped with the accent and the ‘thur’ and ‘curr’. The way that she speaks was from the mouth. So the teeth really helped. They weren’t…I hope Cilla likes them.”


Q: Has Cilla seen it yet? And if she hasn’t, what do you think she is likely to make of it? Because there are times where she comes across as being quite an unsympathetic character. People may not know that that’s how she was?

Jeff Pope: “Cilla was very frank and very open with me in the research phase. I spoke to Robert first and once we’d agreed to meet and to start to talk it through, it took her a little while. But in the end she was very frank. And she was very insistent that we go into areas that weren’t…that it wasn’t viewed through rosey spectacles. She was very upfront about how determined she was and how sharp her elbows were – and had to be in those days. I couldn’t have wished for more, really. One of my fears was that for a woman that spent so long being so successful in the field of light entertainment, would this be too left field for her? Would her tendency be, like in her shows, to smooth everything out and present a kind of wonderful face to the world? But no. I found the opposite. With Robert as well. One of the first things Robert said to me was that his father had said to him, ‘Behind every good woman is a good man.’ And Robert’s phrase – a great phrase – was that in an era when things like this just didn’t happen, he was very happy to carry the handbag. So the scripting process – and I went through the scripts with her…not only was she very receptive to those areas that you talk about where you could look at it and think, ‘That’s not presenting her in the greatest light.’ Not only was she OK, she understood what was going on there, she helped me a lot with the vernacular, a lot of the sound and the rhythms. We finished. Then, I had underestimated how stressful watching it was going to be. She makes a joke out of it and says, ‘This normally happens when someone’s kicked the bucket.’ But the answer is – and I was talking to Rob today – is that she’s seen little bits. But the emotion of seeing the love of her life Bobby, and her, go through all they went through is massive. Rob will give you the latest. We’re hoping this weekend she’s going to watch.”

Robert Willis: “We’ve obviously just got the final cut. We wanted her to watch the finished cut with the grading and the CGI and all those bits. She’s seen tasters, so she gets it and she really has enjoyed it. She’s going to watch it this weekend. It was better for her to see the finshed version with the sound right, the grading right, all those bits and bobs.”


Q: Three quick questions: Was there ever a suggestion that Cilla might have a cameo role in the film..?

Jeff Pope: “I’ll come straight in there. Very quick answer to that – no. Because, as Rob said, if Cilla came up to set and just had one line, the idea of her standing there watching and Sheridan singing all her songs, she’d have turned round and gone away again. So no. She didn’t. I think she wanted to let us do and she didn’t want to put her footprint on it.”

Q: Any suggestion that Sheridan might now do an album of Cilla covers? And would you possibly reprise your role with Cilla now later in her career maybe…

Sheridan Smith: “And go into Blind Date and Surprise Surprise? (laughs) Oh, I’d love to. (laughs) No. I don’t know about that. Do you know what I think is great is that the younger generation have got no clue about this. They know Blind Date, Surprise Surprise onwards, so they’re going to get to see this incredible singing career that she had and then your generation can re-live it, hopefully. But no plans for an album! There’s only one Cilla, come on.”


Q: Sheridan – what impact did playing Cilla have on you? How did you feel when you were playing her?

Sheridan Smith: “When you’ve watched someone that long…and also I’ve grown up watching her so…I was in awe of her. Whenever you’re playing somebody…it sound weird saying you fall in love with them, but you kind of become obsessed with them because you’re watching them every day and reading their autobiography. So when I went to dinner and Robert was there and Aneurin was there, we all went…I was really starstruck and really nervous. And I think I babbled away at her going, ‘In the 1964 interview when you said this I thought it was really ballsy of you.’ And she couldn’t quite catch up with what I was saying. But when you meet them in person – it’s a huge responsibility because you just don’t want to let them down. And as far as the moments that might seem unsympathetic, to me it was like she was in a man’s world. I just admired her strength. She was up against The Beatles and all these male bands. She was the only female to come out of Liverpool and she’s much more of a tough cookie than me. And I just admire that. So it was pressure but just an honour to play her because I’m a huge fan of her.”

Q: Did she give you any tips?

Sheridan Smith: “She was lovely. She gave me her phone number and said to ring. But I was too shy to ring. I was too nervous. What do you ask? I was like, ‘I can’t keep bothering her every day.’ So I didn’t ring her. But I hopefully did her story justice and I’ll hopefully see her again. Maybe I’ll ring her now, once it’s over.” (laughs)


Q: The Cavern Club in Liverpool was such an iconic moment in time in music history. How was it for all of you re-creating that time and that atmosphere?

Sheridan Smith: “The best. The Sixties era is the best era. I wish I was born then. So re-creating all that, to me, was just the biggest buzz.”

Kwadjo Dajan: “For us it was fantastic. We went to the original Cavern Club and also a museum called The Beatles Story where they replicated it to the exact spec. And just being in that environment, it’s almost something in the air, something of the walls that you pick up. But as a practical filming space it’s very difficult because the ceilings are really low and there’s not a lot of movement in there. And so in the end, just by a stroke of luck, at the bottom of the production office where we were based there was a massive space where we could re-create our own Cavern. And so we designed it and re-created it to the exact spec of the real Cavern. But with higher ceilings and a bit more movement on the edges. And I just think, the accuracy from the designer, everybody involved, the accuracy in that re-creation just almost by osmosis I think you pick something up just by being there. You were almost transported into another world and everyone who came in, you could see them being affected by that. And I think that the way the performances came out in that environment added to it. We actually had the real owners of the Cavern come down as well and asked, ‘What are you going to do with this set when you’re finished?’ And we said, ‘Well, we’re going to knock it down and build Abbey Road.’ And they actually wanted to take the set and transport it. But for practical reasons they left it.”


Q: For Jeff and Sheridan – you, of course, collaborated together on Mrs Biggs famously. When you thought of doing Cilla, did you immediately think of Sheridan? And tell me about the genesis of the two of you getting together again on this new project.

Jeff Pope: “For me, I just think I’ve been extremely lucky to have worked with Sheridan just at this point in her career. She did some wonderful stuff before but the stuff that she’s done with me, she’’s just peaked and stayed there. So I instantly…there wasn’t really anyone else. Well there wasn’t anyone else that I was thinking of. Because…I knew she could sing. The only thing I didn’t know was how great she was as a singer. And that’s what I find the most exciting thing about this. Because I knew how great an actress Sheridan was but I didn’t know how great a singer she was. And Paul and Kwadjo’s decision that she would perform live on set, talking to Sheridan…what I thought was really interesting was she said that what it meant was that she wasn’t thinking about singing, she was thinking about where the character was in the story. That came through. I think you could see it. The big things like nerves but also further on when she’s in the Persian Room (in New York) and she’s singing and she’s a big star but she knows that they’re not really getting it, there’s something indefinable that will come through in your performance when you’re acting that. Rather than doing something on set and then over-dubbing it afterwards. I’d met Sheridan and knew her but hadn’t worked with her until Mrs Biggs. I just want to work with her all the time now. I couldn’t stop working with her.”


Q: In the drama we see how Cilla stops Bobby from having a recording career. Do you think that was for the best or do you think it was a missed opportunity?

Jeff Pope: “For me, I think ultimately it was (for the best) because Bobby was his own man. And I think, as Rob told me, he never regretted that. He was very happy to be the good man behind the good woman. I think he took as much pleasure out of her career for himself as she got out of it. So no. My instinct was I don’t think he did regret it. And in many respects he was a modern man. He was quite happy to put himself second. Classically, not so much now, but certainly 40s, 50s and 60s it was the man that had the career and the woman that trailed along behind. So Bobby…it was for real all that. I think his upbringing, the fact that he lost his mother…I found that all really fascinating when I talked to Rob and the Willis family. About how Bobby was really the…he was the householder. He made the meals for his brothers and for his sister. He made the school lunches and he did the washing and the ironing. I think he liked looking after people and when he met Cilla he met someone who really wanted looking after. He happened to be talented too. But I think he probably appreciated how blunt she was. That’s it. That’s how it’s going to be. She didn’t pull any punches. I think she knew exactly where she wanted to go and she knew what she had to do to get there. And she was quite prepared to do it.”

Robert Willis: “I think at that point in their relationship and their careers, I think his relationship with my mother was worth more than an opportunity of making it as a pop star. As he would have known, it’s quite a fickle business – still is and was then – and just having a shot doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get a hit. And so why would you risk all you’ve built up for the sake of ego? His ego was not that big where he would have sacrificed the relationship just for a hit at the pop charts. He had lots of other opportunities throughout their career which he didn’t take up. He knew where his priorities were and that was to be a team.”


Q: Jeff – so do you think that seeing Cilla’s more unsympathetic moments as unsympathetic would be too simple a reading? When people watch it, do you think that’s the wrong message to take from it?

Jeff Pope: “One of the reasons why I was keen to watch it in the round, watch the whole of it, was because I think if you place those moments when she is ruthless and she is determined, if you place them in context and you see that…it’s a whole story. So yes, she was ruthless, she was determined and she got where she wanted to get to. But realised that that wasn’t everything. And like everyone else in life, it’s a balance. You need to have your life and your work. She was only young and she was trying to find that balance. What will people take from it? I don’t mind if people think watching it that at certain points in her life, in her career, she was ruthless. I think it’s the truth. And it’s as she told it to me. She would say it to me now, like, ‘What a cow I was. But that’s what I said.’ She didn’t flinch from it. I think when you watch the truth, I think that’s OK.”


Q: Did you get the feeling that she regretted these hard moments at all or is she comfortable with them even now?

Jeff Pope: “It’s a good question. No, I wouldn’t say she was uncomfortable with them. Look at the amazing career she had. And I don’t think she would have had one tenth of that without the attitude she had, the determination. So no, I don’t think she regretted it. I think she thought that was how she had to be at that point. Because I honestly believe that if somehow the Bobby and Cilla thing had been defused by it being the two of them, maybe it would have frittered away. Maybe she wouldn’t have had the career she went on to have. I remember as a young researcher…I joined what was LWT in 1983 and I didn’t know him to speak to but Cilla was, if not at her height approaching the absolute peak of her career then…so I used to watch on the ring main Surprise Surprise and Blind Date and I knew Bobby. I’d see them together and I could see how tight they were. It was just the way he looked after her. So I could see what a pair they were. It was talking to Robert and finding out the history of it and all the detail, it all clicked. I just thought, ‘I did see them.’ I could see the two of them. Just the way he’d hold her arm as they were walking along the corridor, going to the dressing rooms or where he’d stand on set just off to the side as she did what she did. And I think because of everything she did, she was free to do what she could do. She had that wonderful…he took all her problems away for her. He loved doing that and it allowed her to just do what she did.”


Cilla ITV photos by Stuart Wood

ITV Drama

Cilla ITV Wylie Interviews

Sheridan Smith

Aneurin Barnard

Ed Stoppard

Melanie Hill

John Henshaw

Jeff Pope

Mrs Biggs: Sheridan Smith

Holiday Startime 1966 Programme

Ian Wylie on Twitter