Funny Cow is a showcase for Maxine Peake’s versatility as an acting talent when she stars as a ground-breaking female comedian surviving in the misogynistic Seventies.
Dying for a Laughby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
In a gritty film about a life of creating comedy from pain, Maxine Peake stars as the (never named) Funny Cow, a tough working-class woman with a funnybone for a backbone, she claims, who becomes a successful stand-up comedian against all the sexist odds of the Seventies.
Now a blonde-coiffed, expensively dressed household name, wearing a fur coat and high heels, she revisits the grim back-to-backs where she grew up, and through a series of flashbacks over the prism of three different time frames we see what she had to overcome to achieve her success. With a violent father and alcoholic mother, as a child (Macy Shackleton) she was fearless and irrepressible. Young Funny Cow (Hebe Beardsall) escapes out of the frying pan of a deprived childhood into the fire of a too-early marriage to an abusive husband (Tony Pitts, who also wrote the screenplay).
Maxine Peake takes over when adult Funny Cow accepts she’s a natural comic and can’t suppress the urge to perform, even if it means the end of her marriage. As she starts to change her life, she dazzles shy bookshop owner Angus (Paddy Considine, playing against type), and dabbles unsuccessfully in his unsuitable (for her) middle-class, intellectual lifestyle until she unemotionally discards him too.
In a disastrous talent show she’s up against an Elvis impersonator (John Bishop) and a ventriloquist ((Jim Moir/Vic Reeves), but she befriends failing Northern club comedian Lenny (wonderful, hang-dog, doom-laden Alun Armstrong). Undeterred by his disillusioned and deeply cynical warnings about the misery and despair of comedy, she succeeds brilliantly in the misogynistic Northern club circuit, putting down foul-mouthed hecklers with even fouler-mouthed put-downs. She’s introduced disparagingly as ‘a funny cow’ by the compere (Bobby Knutt), but she turns this to her advantage. Though her act is as acceptably racist and sexist as that of the male comedians of the time, maybe she had added internal struggles, though this is never explicit, and she does add something, although only a little, of the extra dimension of a female perspective in her patter – and that was a first for comedy at a time when women were simply not considered capable of being comedians.
From the pinnacle of her success, Funny Cow looks back on her life from the vantage point of a TV show profile, ensconced on a stool in front of the cameras like a Dave Allen-style raconteur. She knows she’s a monster. Maybe that’s what ambition did to her, maybe she became one, maybe she always was. Did these memories really exist or is she reinventing them now?
The film shoots her always dressed vibrantly in red, standing out amid the greyness of her surroundings as if she doesn’t fit in, and when she becomes successful, always looking film-star glamorous. Possibly Tony Pitts’ Funny Cow character is inspired by the life of Northern comedian Marti Caine, who became famous in the Seventies after winning the TV talent show New Faces, beating Lenny Henry and Victoria Wood, and went on to stardom. The film is a very British evocation of that past era – in fact, it was the end of an era, an era starting its transition to the more politically correct present day – with present-day well-known comedians enjoyably unrecognisable in comic acting roles and a splendiferous virtuoso turn from Maxine Peake.
Funny Cow has its World Premiere at the 61st BFI London Film Festival on 9 and 15 October 2017.