Funny Cow (2017)

Funny Cow showcases Maxine Peake’s versatility when she stars as a ground-breaking female comedian surviving in the misogynistic Seventies.

Dying for a Laugh

by Alexa Dalby

Funny Cow

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Maxine Peake stars in a gritty drama as the (never actually named) Funny Cow, a tough working-class woman with a ‘funny bone for a backbone’, she claims, who becomes a successful stand-up comedian against the many sexist odds of the Seventies.

At the height of her career, Funny Cow looks back on her life from the vantage point of what seems to be a TV show profile. She’s 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?

This reminiscence device links a series of flashbacks that show what she overcame to achieve her success. Dressed in red, in contrast to the industrial drabness around her, we see her first as, blonde-coiffed and expensively dressed in a fur coat and sexy heels, she revisits the grim back-to-backs where she grew up.

As Child Funny Cow (Macy Shackleton) with a violent father and alcoholic mother, 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 the role 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 she dabbles unsuccessfully in his middle-class, intellectual lifestyle until she unemotionally discards him too.

In the disastrous talent show that starts her comic career, she’s up against various well-known contemporary comedians in low-key cameos as talentless hopeful contestants – an Elvis impersonator (John Bishop) and a ventriloquist ((Jim Moir/Vic Reeves). In a rather clichéd plot line, she befriends a failing Northern club comedian Lenny (wonderful, hang-dog, doom-laden Alun Armstrong) and outshines him. Undeterred by his disillusioned and deeply cynical warnings about the misery and despair of comedy, she succeeds 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.

Her act, in as far as we see it on screen, is as racist and sexist as that of the male comedians of the time – and with the benefit of hindsight, doesn’t seem side-splittingly funny, consisting mainly of putting down heckles from the audience. She does add something, although only a little, of the extra dimension of a female perspective in her patter, though perhaps that is true to the ear. Although she does seem to have been considered as a bit of a curiosity at the time, that small triumph was a first for comedy at a time when women were simply not considered capable of being comedians.

The film shoots her always dressed vibrantly in red, standing out amid the greyness of her surroundings as if to symbolise that she doesn’t fit in. When she becomes successful, she always presents as film-star glamorous.

Though not a biopic, Funny Cow appears loosely based on the life of comedian Marti Caine, famous in the Seventies after winning the TV talent show New Faces, beating Lenny Henry and Victoria Wood, and who went on to stardom. The film has no fireworks, but makes good use of some brilliant actors to demonstrate that being funny is a serious business. Dominated by Peake as a damaged monster of a human being who makes comedy out of pain, it’s a very British evocation of a dark era before comedy started its transition to the more politically correct present day.

Funny Cow premiered at the 61st BFI London Film Festival and is released on 20 April 2018 in the UK.

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