Funny Cow isn’t really about comedy. Laughter is the prism through which this bleak fable spins a tale of escape and identity. To make the story of the titular, unnamed ‘Funny Cow’, about the rise of a comedy superstar would be to miss the point. Adrian Shergold’s movie is a strangely oblique, fourth wall breaking self-biography, dominated by the immense talent of Maxine Peake.
I won’t be the first person to say this, but I would go on record to suggest Peake might well be the finest British actress of her generation working today. It is rare to find an actress with the kind of extraordinary range she employs as Funny Cow, an incredibly scattershot and difficult to pin down role as written by Tony Pitts (who also plays her vile, abusive husband Bob). By turns, Peake has to be downtrodden, attractive, quirky, demure, flirtatious and more than a little mentally scarred by decades of abuse, and she manages it with aplomb. Shergold understands the picture lives and dies on the actress in every frame, who holds the central role, and you genuinely cannot imagine anyone embodying Funny Cow as well as Peake. She is magnetic, as she almost always is.
This is even more impressive given Funny Cow does not hold to a conventional sense of structure. A little bit like her stand-up routine, Funny Cow is staccato from a narrative perspective, leaping and flickering from one period in her life to another, more to accentuate a thematic idea rather than forward the narrative in a clear fashion. Pitts’ script, ultimately, is all about a woman who grew up within a perpetuating cycle of abuse, which in end she helps to perpetuate by accepting it as her normality. Shergold doesn’t hold back on depicting this either, from Stephen Graham’s violent father taking his belt to her girl-self when she talks back to him, through to Pitts’ Bob breaking her nose when she disobeys his instructions. The piece is necessarily bleak when it needs to be.
Shergold has precedent for this. You may not know him as a cinematic creative simply because his work has been largely on TV for over thirty years, but he has been the guiding hand visually behind more than a few well known and highly-regarded British TV shows; from episodes of Inspector Morse, through to Tony Marchant’s acclaimed Holding On (which helped launch the careers of actors such as David Morrissey & Lesley Manville), quietly venerated comedy Early Doors, and the hugely underrated mini-series The Second Coming, by Russell T. Davies, with Christopher Eccleston as an incarnation of Christ reborn in Manchester. Both of those latter series in particular display the nouveau realism of Northern British culture which underpins Funny Cow. The DNA of this film is everywhere in his directorial history.
Northern British culture is fascinating and enormously prevalent in British storytelling, both on screen and on television. It may well be the most characterised British sub-culture outside of the upper classes and ‘Cockney’ London, going back all the way to key British movies such as Ken Loach’s Kes. Most countries have particular sub-cultures in terms of language and rituals, which you only really understand when you live in that particular place, but Britain has always had a particularly diverse regional divide. What passes as normal in Durham may be entirely alien in Worthing. Northern culture has always been characterised as blunt, working class, riven with gallows humour and populated by hard men and battle scarred women.
The same is true of Funny Cow, particularly given the time periods the film plays in. The story roughly spans the 1950’s through to the 1980’s, but no specific dates are given. No specific places are named either, though you can roughly guarantee this all takes place probably in Lancashire. Shergold and Pitts intentionally leave those specific details out because, in many respects, Funny Cow is a twisted, kitchen sink fable. Hence why Peake’s character often ends a chapter looking directly at the camera, at us, or delivering monologues on stage to an unseen and possibly imaginary audience. In truth, *we* are the audience. Throughout the film, Funny Cow is confessing, trying to make us understand a persona she knows is hard to grasp.
The film is very self-aware in this regard; even the chapters are named ‘the first bit’ or ‘another bit’, intentionally nodding to an understanding of act-structure in narrative, where an audience expects a three or four or five act structure to a story. Funny Cow is not that simple and it knows it, frequently throwing us back or pitching us forward. This could also represent the cultural divide which Pitts cuts through the entire script; Funny Cow as a name is a derivation of Northern cultural slang, a description of a woman making you laugh barbed with an insult, given ‘cow’ is used in many British sub-cultures of language as a derogatory term. This ‘funny cow’ as people refer to her as throughout also doesn’t understand Shakespeare, and perhaps the acts being broken down into clearer to understand titular language is a reflection of that cultural distance.
Funny Cow is bothered by culture. It does not paint the 1970’s, where the majority of the action takes place, in a particularly good light. When we look back, this is probably deserved. The swinging Sixties gave way to a smutty Seventies, with sex comedies in cinemas replacing quirky capers or witty Ealing romps, and the rise of ‘working men’s clubs’ particularly in the working class areas of the country such as the North and the Midlands, where beer-swigging men would sit in their droves on an afternoon watching a woman take her clothes off to saucy music, leching at her like a piece of meat. This is the climate, the place of women in this working class North, that Funny Cow has to try and make her comedic mark. She spends the majority of the picture working up the nerve to do so.
In some ways, Funny Cow shares DNA with Amazon’s recent success, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, but beyond both trying to break into comedy in a period setting, they diverge significantly from each other in terms of tone and style. Maisel is softer, wittier, more urbane, in a middle-class American world all about proving yourself as a woman taking on a male paradigm, where as Funny Cow isn’t about the success. Right from the first frame, we know she makes it. Mrs Maisel makes her name a key part of her act but we never even know Funny Cow’s name. She is stripped of her identity as much as the women being leered at on stage by the men she has to try and make laugh are stripped of their clothes. It is a film about finding and forging your own identity.
The search doesn’t have a clear, recognisable through-line either. Funny Cow reaches a point of catharsis but it’s more about recognising who she doesn’t want to be, rather than who she is; escaping the abusive Bob, a thinly characterised proxy for her father; helping her abused mother escape her own desperate, alcohol-fuelled loneliness in old age; and in some of the most interesting moments of the film, understanding that the kindly, educated bookseller Angus (played with sweet, endearing pomposity by Paddy Considine) is equally as wrong for her as the husband who beat her to shreds. A crucial factor in Funny Cow’s journey is recognising that part of breaking the cycle of abuse involves becoming emotionally untouchable. You don’t leave the film entirely convinced she is a rounded, happy person who made the best choices.
That’s a major reason why Funny Cow works, because there is an ambiguity to it all. There are also frequently moments of desperately sad and effecting bleakness (the fate of Alun Armstrong’s old, tired comedian springs to mind) and pointedly harrowing violence, counterbalanced with quirky moments of oddness as Funny Cow pulls pranks or teases men or joins a talent show; plus, when we finally do get to see what she can do on stage, it is a mix of harsh, funny rejoinder and painfully outdated 70’s racism which will leave you cringing as much as laughing. Maxine Peake, throughout, even when the film perhaps wrong foots you narratively or tonally a touch too often, grounds the picture.
You will care about her, even if she doesn’t want you to. That’s also why Funny Cow will probably stay with you for a while.