How Bafta-winning actress got to grips with role of nation’s favourite
She’s a BAFTA-winning actress with star-quality, charm and a string of TV hits in her short but glittering career.
But Doncaster’s Sheridan Smith was as nervous as a novice when she got the lead in a three-part ITV biopic about Cilla Black’s rise to fame.
Cilla charts the Liverpudlian’s ascent from typist and Cavern Club cloakroom attendant to number one recording artist and burgeoning TV star, with Sheridan faithfully recreating her sound (“the soft voice and the big kind of Cilla honk”) and look via a flame-red bob, false teeth and coloured contact lenses.
“To get to play an icon like that was an honour – scary, but an honour,” says 33-year-old Sheridan, who grew up with her mum Marilyn, dad Colin and brother Damian, in Epworth.
“Hopefully I’ve done her story justice.”
As a child of the Eighties, Smith’s memories of Black centred on her reuniting families on Surprise Surprise! and asking ‘our Graham’ for a quick recap on Blind Date.
“I’d heard a little bit of her music, like Alfie. I vaguely remember her having a singing career, but nothing like she actually had,” says Smith who began her career at Doncaster’s Little Theatre.
“She had so many hit records, the fact she knew The Beatles, that whole Merseybeat sound that came out of Liverpool in the Sixties, it’s just fascinating.”
In the run-up to filming, the Lincolnshire-born star spent three months researching the singer, filling her phone with Cilla songs and watching old interview clips.
And while Smith has the star’s look and voice down to a tee (the false teeth helped her perfect the Scouse accent, she says), she was careful not to attempt a complete impersonation.
“A lot of people mimic Cilla, don’t they? I didn’t want to do her a disservice. There are hints and mannerisms in there, but it’s our version of her.
“You become obsessed with whoever you’re playing. I was the same on Mrs Biggs,” the actress adds, referring to her 2012 Bafta-winning role playing Ronnie Biggs’ wife Charmian. You have such a warmth and love for them, I guess, because you admire them so much.”
When it came to meeting the You’re My World singer for dinner, Smith was “starstruck; kind of babbling on”.
Luckily, ‘Our Cilla’ was fully supportive. In fact, the Blind Date host has since described Smith’s performance as “absolutely terrific... God knows how she sang so well with those false teeth in”.
“She gave me her number actually, and said I could call her. I was too shy,” Smith recalls, laughing. “You can’t ring Cilla Black every day! I left her in peace and got on with filming.”
The ITV series depicts how Black’s friendship with the Beatles helped her cross paths with manager Brian Epstein (played by Ed Stoppard), and charts her romance with future husband Bobby (Aneurin Barnard).
It also reveals how Black could be ruthless in her ambition – at one point, forbidding Bobby from pursuing a music career, lest it distract him from looking after her own.
“She admitted that she was a tough cookie, but you had to be in the Sixties,” Smith counters.
“For her to come out of Liverpool, this little working class girl, and become the star that she was, you’ve got to be ballsy.”
As the daughter of a hard-working country and western duo known as The Daltons, Smith could relate to Black’s background.
“I love that she grafted. I’ve seen my mum and dad graft and bring us up doing all the working men’s clubs every night.
“In fact, my parents came on set,” she adds. “They were only going to come for two hours; they stayed for two days, they loved looking at all the old instruments, chatting to the guys playing The Beatles.”
Smith might claim to be less determined than Black (“maybe I’m a bit more of a people-pleaser and don’t want to rock the boat”), but her impressive CV suggests that she also shares some of her grit.
After performing with the National Youth Music Theatre as a youngster, she moved to London aged 16, and went on to land roles in sitcoms The Royle Family (playing Ralf Little’s girlfriend) and Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps.
Her award-winning turn in Trevor Nunn’s 2011 production of Flare Path brought her to the attention of Dustin Hoffman, who offered her a part in his directorial debut Quartet, alongside Dame Maggie Smith and Billy Connolly. Since then, she’s had leading roles in ITV’s The Widower (based on the crimes of Scottish killer Malcolm Webster), BBC One’s The 7.39 with David Morrissey and Olivia Colman, about commuters who embark on an affair, and The C-Word, the upcoming drama about real-life cancer blogger Lisa Lynch.
And she’s soon to start filming another three-part series, Black Work, playing a policewoman whose husband is murdered.
“For once, it’s fictional, so there won’t be as much research this time,” she says. “The one thing I’m going to do is go to boot camp, because I’m so unfit.
“There are a lot of car chases and running on foot – I don’t think policewomen should be getting a stitch like I do!
“It’s totally different again to anything I’ve done,” Smith adds. “I like to keep trying new things, and being a bit of a chameleon.”
* Cilla begins on Monday.
Priscilla Maria Veronica White was born in Liverpool on May 27, 1943, to parents John, who played the mouth organ, and Priscilla, who sang.
She worked as a typist, a coat check girl at the Cavern Club, and a coffee-server at The Zodiac, where she met husband-to-be Bobby Willis.
Cilla – who received her new surname, Black, thanks to a newspaper misprint – came to prominence performing alongside The Beatles and Gerry And The Pacemakers.
Beatles manager Brian Epstein signed Cilla in September 1963 and her second single, Anyone Who Had A Heart, hit the number one spot in 1964, followed by another chart-topper, You’re My World.
Before his death in 1967, Epstein engineered Cilla’s switch to TV with her own eponymous variety show, which ran until 1976 and had a theme tune penned by Paul McCartney.