First, an admission: I do like this sort of thing. Maxine Peake plays the titular Funny Cow, a put-upon kid from a 1960s northern town, beaten by her dad and abused by her husband (Tony Pitts, who also writes the script), who wants to be a stand-up comedienne.
“Women aren’t funny,” barks the wrinkled old soak Lenny (Alun Armstrong) who, remarkably, serves as her inspiration. Mind you, if he can get a laugh with that material, why shouldn’t she?
Oddly, we never really see Funny Cow make it big. She does a few acts to drunken crowds and deals smartly with sexist heckling, but in the film’s chopped-up structure, the only proof we have that she’s made it big is her turning up at her Mum’s terrace in a red Stag (one of my favourite ever cars), made of course, by Triumph. The fur coat might be a hint, too.
But Funny Cow’s not happy. I’m not sure she wants that. She wants people to laugh, but not much herself, and I think the film’s hinting at the psychology behind that. There’s something of Marti Caine about her, a touch of Victoria Wood, too, though the sad clown act loses some impact through over familiarity.
There are some good gags here, some duds, too, and some old 70s racist ones about Pakis – I guess that’s how things were, but they do jar these days. There’s an audition sequence, too, which features John Bishop as a terrible Elvis act and a brilliant Vic Reeves as a rotten ventriloquist with a lion who sings “Gorn Free…”
Paddy Considine’s here too, as a roll-neck wearing bookshop owner who shows Funny Cow the sophistication of books and opera. She doesn’t really fancy him though.
Funny Cow has great flashes and moments and some fine, chorus-like songs by Richard Hawley. I almost wish there was more to it, more of it, but I can’t have a go at it for being something it so defiantly doesn’t want to be in director Adrian Shergold’s style choices and the pinched budget, which seems to have gone mainly on stuffing ashtrays and old whisky bottles.
I kept thinking of the Marvellous Mrs Maisel, the series on Amazon about a 50s New York Jewish housewife turned stand up in the clubs of Greenwich Village which, in its ambition, depth and slickness, somehow makes an interesting comparison piece between America and Britain.
Whatever, Peake is a joy to watch, real glee and flint in a performance that snorts out of her in defiant, dubiously glamorous plumes, like the smoke of so many tugged-on cigarettes.