In this blog I have often referred to British people, both celebrated and notorious, who I have learned about solely through my telly viewing. From Mrs. Mills and Tommy Cooper to Fred West and the Cambridge spies, telly biopics and mini-series have taught me about the real people behind some faintly familiar names. This week I got to know two such people- a beloved entertainer and a convicted wife murderer.
I’d heard of Cilla Black but knew virtually nothing of her story. I decided to watch Cilla purely based on the casting of lead actress Sheridan Smith. I saw her prior BAFTA-award winning performance in another biographical series, Mrs. Biggs wherein she portrayed train robber Ronnie Biggs’s wife. I also read that she did all her own singing for the Cilla Black role.
I found Cilla’s story fascinating – a Liverpool girl with big dreams and a big voice who found herself in the right place at the right time. A teenager when the Beatles were first becoming a sensation in their hometown, Cilla already knew Ringo Starr and was a sought after “girl singer” with many of the Merseybeat bands of the day. According to the show, she was given two chances to audition for the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein; during the first one she choked but the second time Epstein showed up unannounced and Cilla impressed him enough to offer her a contract.
The one who made me sit up and take notice in this series was Aneurin Barnard who played Bobby Willis, Cilla’s manager and love interest. Bobby was loyal, hardworking, supportive and apparently musically talented as a songwriter and singer in his own right.
He also tolerated being strung along for what appeared to be years since Cilla had to put on the facade of availability for her fans.
One can never be sure of the accuracy of series such as this, but at one point Brian Epstein offered Bobby his own recording contract. Upon consulting Cilla, she reportedly told Bobby in no uncertain terms that he was forbidden from accepting the offer. She was adamant he not become a competitor for attention from Epstein. Bobby appeared to be stung more by her total lack of happiness for him than her demand that he not accept the contract. I can’t say I agreed with his devotion to Cilla in putting her career first; however, in hindsight, Epstein died not long after this incident so Willis’ performing career might have ended as quickly as it began.
I probably don’t have to tell you Cilla transitioned from a chart topping singer in the 60’s to a television presenter and actress in the 70’s and beyond. Bobby and Cilla married and remained together until his death in 1999, very rare in show business especially these days. Watching Cilla just left me hoping Bobby got the respect and attention he gave so freely to Miss Black all those years before their marriage.
The other mini-series I watched recently was a true crime drama called The Widower. It told the story of Malcolm Webster played by Reece Shearsmith. This was a murder case I hadn’t heard of, but if Shearsmith was involved it was sure to be creepy. Indeed I found the actor’s appearance more unsettling without all the customary prostheses, make-up and costumes I was used to seeing from his work on The League of Gentlemen, etc.
According to the story, Malcolm Webster married Claire Morris (coincidentally portrayed by Sheridan Smith) in Scotland. Shortly after the wedding, he began to drug her tea and drinking water with the sleep-inducing drug temazepam when she starting nagging him about his extravagant spending habits. As a nurse, he had ready access to such medications and for a while was able to convince his wife that she had a virus and therefore had no reason to go see a doctor. When he found out she had consulted a physician who wanted to run some toxicology tests, Malcolm knew he had to prevent them from finding the drug in her system.
He took a nearly comatose Claire out in the car, faked an accident he claimed was caused by a motorcycle driving on the wrong side of the road and then, after splashing petrol under the hood of the car, set the engine alight with Claire inside. Predictably the car blew up and Malcolm played the devastated spouse who was too dazed from the accident to rescue his wife.
In the course of the series, Malcolm married a second wife, Felicity, in Australia, embezzled her money, set up insurance policies and drugged her as well. He didn’t succeed in killing #2 before her family got suspicious so he had to make a run for it back to the UK leaving his baby son behind in the process.
Mr. Webster’s downfall was falling for Simone Banerjee (Archie Panjabi) who worked in the same Scottish hospital as Malcolm. To earn her sympathy and attention, he pretended to have leukemia even resorting to shaving his head and eyebrows to simulate the symptoms of chemotherapy. After gaining her affection and trust, Simone undergoes IVF in hopes of giving Malcolm a child to carry on his name assuming he will succumb to the cancer sooner rather than later. Thankfully the procedure is unsuccessful.
As far as we know, he never drugged Simone but later she discovers Malcolm tampered with the life vest in her sailboat so he may have planned on pushing her overboard at some point. By now the police have caught onto Webster’s spree of fires, cons and murder and warn Simone that she may be in danger. His lies finally catch up with him and even Malcolm can’t charm, wiggle or run his way out of it.
It’s difficult to know if Malcolm Webster intended to harm these women when he first got involved with them. It may have been financial circumstances and his great aversion to being told what to do which prompted the drugging and plans to do away with these women he claimed to love. Regardless he remains in prison today despite several appeals and the women who survived their involvement with him can count themselves, if not fortunate, at least wiser.
Oddly enough both these mini-series were penned by the same writer, Jeff Pope. He seems to have a knack for true stories as he’s also written the screenplays for Philomena, Appropriate Adult, Lucan and the aforementioned Mrs. Biggs. I’m glad someone adapts these compelling lives for the screen and makes them entertaining in the bargain. They boost my awareness of British public personalities and,even better ,they increase my chances if winning if I ever enter find myself competing in a pub quiz in the UK. You wait, it is gonna happen one of these days.