Television: Feeling a lorra love for UTV’s engrossing Cilla Black biopic

Review: The Liverpool luvvy gets the Jeff Pope treatment; ‘The Leftovers’ is a beautiful-people redo of ‘The Returned’

Surprise surprise: Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Surprise surprise: Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

 

Back in the heyday of light entertainment, Cilla Black was huge, a proper television personality whose shows Surprise Surprise and Blind Date were ratings juggernauts in the 1980s and 1990s. She laid the Liverpool accent on thick, creating catchphrases that stuck: she promised “a lorra, lorra laffs” for “our Gemma” and “our Tony”. She was like a gobby, good-humoured glamorous aunt.

TV was a second career, though; Black’s first was as a singer. The first episode of a three-part biopic, Cilla (UTV, Monday), goes back to the beginning of her career, in Liverpool in 1960, when as a teenager she did Ringo Starr’s mam’s hair; her friend dated George Harrison; and John Lennon got her an audition with his band’s manager, “posh” Brian Epstein. Sheridan Smith captures Cilla’s infectious bubbliness, talent and determination, with a red wig, a set of prominent teeth and a where-did-that- come-from? singing voice.

In their flat above the barbers – Cilla looks to be a faithful re-creation of 1960s working-class Liverpool – her mam boasts she’s the first in the family to be thought of as suitable for office work. Her singing career is discouraged, but the real no-no for Cilla and her Catholic friends is dating “a Proddy” – not that her new generation of Scousers, all bursting with possibility, care about the old rules.

Cilla’s writer, Jeff Pope, is a master of gritty realism – his previous biopics include one on the serial killer Fred West, and he wrote Philomena with Steve Coogan. But there’s a jaunty lightness to Cilla that feels almost like a slick West End musical. Before I tune in I can’t imagine there’ll be enough story to stretch over three episodes – an eternity by biopic standards. I can now.

At the end of episode one Cilla has messed up her big audition, with The Beatles as her backing band at the Cavern, in Liverpool, so there’s ages to go before the lorra years. I’ll be tuned in.

I know what is happening in The Leftovers (Sky Atlantic, Tuesday), the much- talked-about US hit of the summer; I’m just not sure what it’s all about. The opening sequence is a stunner, reeling you into an exploration of grief, despair and loss – not your average glossy American drama, then. A distracted mother puts her baby in its car seat, gets ready to drive off, and in an instant the baby is gone. A boy in the car park screams for his dad as a shopping trolley rolls away and a car on the highway careers into another. It’s eerie and strange, a classic sci-fi set-up of a bizarre, unexplained series of events in an otherwise ordinary introduction.

Cut to three years later and we learn that, on that day in October, 2 per cent of the world’s population (including, randomly, the pope and Salman Rushdie) inexplicably disappeared in an event called the Rapture. The Leftovers explores the impact of that shocking day in a New Jersey town where everyone’s life has been changed, seen mainly though the viewpoint and flashbacks of the police chief, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux). This being a pilot, a confusing number of other characters are introduced.

As grief for their disappeared loved ones unmoors people, cults grow, the weirdest being the mute, dressed-in-white Guilty Remnants, who appear in pairs all over town, like weary bakery workers on a fag break, staring and smoking. The town’s teenagers take risks and party outrageously; feral dogs and a stag cross Garvey’s path like portents of something or other.

The handheld-camera work gives immediacy and punch, several scenes have the stunning dreamy cinematography that HBO dramas do so well, and there’s a beautifully interwoven soundtrack.

With every interaction and conversation permeated with loss and despair, it’s redolent of The Returned, the addictive, seriously spooky French series shown on Channel 4. That was proper grim, made more realistic by the cast of ordinary-looking people and the no-frill filming. But The Leftovers can’t get past several American drama cliches: just about everyone is fantastically good-looking, and the very handsome Theroux reveals his tattooed iron-man torso at every chance.

As it’s 10 hours long, getting stuck into The Leftovers is a big investment of time. One of its writers is Damon Lindelof (along with Tom Perotta, on whose book it is based). Lindelof created the cult series Lost and caused fury with an ending after six years that was more a puzzling whimper than the devastating bang that explained everything. For all that, I’m intrigued.

Ireland’s Lost Babies (BBC Two, Wednesday; RTÉ One, Thursday) has real grief, despair and loss by the pramload. Presented by the journalist Martin Sixsmith, it’s another depressing reminder of how deeply dysfunctional this shiny new Rome-ruled Republic was.

After Sixsmith’s story of helping an Irish woman trace her adopted baby became the film Philomena, several others contacted him with their stories. He travels to the US to meet some of the 2,000 “mail-order children” who were adopted out of mother-and-baby homes in the 1950s.

As one woman says, she was “picked from a catalogue”: nuns staged photographs of the children to show them at their most attractive. “That was a prop,” she says of a photo, sent out to prospective parents, of her with a rocking horse. The babies weren’t sold as such, but families made substantial donations to the convents.

Sixsmith moves the story along from Philomena, showing that there was no vetting of adopters other than their bank balances and church attendance. So one man tells how a priest, later revealed as a paedophile, brought him from Ireland to California to be raised by his brother’s family. Another woman tells of being adopted by a paedophile.

There are contributions from Mike Milotte, a journalist who has done superb investigative work in this area, and John Banville, who provides a broader cultural context of Ireland in the 1950s. (This adoption scandal was also central to Banville’s Benjamin Black novel Christine Falls.)

Ireland’s Lost Babies isn’t an hour-long church-bashing – the State’s complicity in everything is highlighted – although the simple cruelty of many of the nuns in withholding information is shown time and again.

Now an elderly widow, Lily tells her sad story of being a “fallen woman” at 19 and the decades trying to find her American-adopted son. Her story is so like Philomena Lee’s that it’s clear that movie could have borne Lily’s name – or indeed any one of thousands of other Irish women.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

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