I’m a child of ITV,” declares Jeff Pope, who began his long career in television as a researcher for ITV franchise London Weekend Television in 1983 and worked his way up to be head of factual drama at ITV Studios, where he says he enjoys “a huge amount of autonomy”.
A grammar-school boy from Cowley in Middlesex who shunned university, the passionate, straight-talking 53-year-old rhapsodises about the “golden period” of ITV when he joined, “when there was much less competition”. There’s a lot more now, but Pope regularly sees it off, as writer, co-writer or producer/executive producer of a seemingly endless stream of popular TV dramas, including Mrs Biggs (about Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs and his wife Charmian), Appropriate Adult (Fred West), Mo (Mo Mowlam), See No Evil: the Moors Murders, Lucan, The Widower, The Fattest Man in Britain, Dirty Filthy Love and This Is Personal: the Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper. His screenplay for Philomena, co-written with Steve Coogan, was Oscar-nominated.
Currently he’s co-writing and producing Cradle to Grave in Manchester, a comedy drama based on 5 Live presenter Danny Baker’s family memoir, Going to Sea in a Sieve. The pair met 30 years ago when Pope started work on LWT’s regional magazine programme The 6 o’Clock Show, which launched Baker’s broadcast career. But we’re here to talk about Pope’s ITV crowdpleaser Cilla – nominated at tonight’s Bafta Television Awards in both the mini-series and leading actress categories (for its effervescent star Sheridan Smith), and, of course, shortlisted for the Radio Times Audience Award. Pope himself is guaranteed a Bafta – he’ll pick up a Special Award for services to television.
Shown in three parts last September, Cilla plotted the birth of the light entertainment doyenne’s pop career in 1960s Liverpool, when she met future husband Bobby Willis and was signed by Beatles manager Brian Epstein. One of Pope’s enduring skills as a writer is finding the story, especially when it’s based in truth, which can sometimes be messy.
Rather than a full biopic, Cilla focused on the exploding Merseyside pop scene and the singer’s fractious relationships with Bobby and Brian, whose death from an overdose of sleeping pills in 1967 gave the arc its tragic end. That the drama was a huge hit (watched by nearly eight million viewers) and critically acclaimed is testament to Pope’s instinct. He traces it back to his earliest days at the commercial broadcaster, which taught him “a mixture of public service and commercial imperative”
Telling true stories, Pope’s stock in trade, goes back to his first job, as a cub reporter on west London’s Ealing Gazette in 1980. He’s a dramatist with a nose for real life. With Cilla Black still very much alive – she celebrated 50 years in showbiz in 2013 – it was, he says, “tricky” to dramatise her early life without raising ghosts. “Like a lot of people, I just remember her from the era of Blind Date and Surprise Surprise, which, if you were to sum it up, was a cosy world. Nothing was nasty, everyone had good-natured fun. And I thought, having built a second career on that, she wouldn’t want to get into the grittier aspects of the early days.”