Funny Cow is setup around the focus of Maxine Peake‘s comedienne trying to find success in an era where men where men and times were tough. It’s all told by her character ‘Funny Cow’ over three different ages in her life that takes us through her being kid to finding some kind of success. It’s true to say that at the time, in the 70s and early 80s, the comedy circuit in Northern England was male dominated (with jokes that were racist/homophobic stereotypes) and especially in the working men’s clubs. The only use for women, in this context, was to either make them sing or dance for their benefit, and female-led comedy was far off the radar.
Directed by Adrian Shergold and written by Tony Pitts, the film is mixed bag of really interesting, reflective moments and unbalanced plot moments. I also found myself questioning the overall role of Funny Cow in the comedy world. Not because she’s not funny, because she is, but due to the detachment of her character and a lingering question over whether her self-proclaimed ‘outsider’ is a somewhat clichéd view of comedians or not.
Throughout Funny Cow’s life, she’s battling against violent, oppressive men (like her Father was) but doesn’t react in a defensive manner when they’re at their peak of aggression. While this reaction undoubtedly give her personal strength, she seems to have this self-aware nature from when she’s a kid and that never changes, almost like she’s an adult from the moment she’s born. I enjoyed her character as an individual, and saw reflections of my life in certain elements, but we never really get ‘inside’ her mind to further expand her belief that she’s always an outsider.
Funny Cow also makes the decision for the main character to be the only person who looks directly into the camera, breaking the fourth wall at important moments in her life. Does this suggest this is the only time we’re allowed to connect, or is she looking in acceptance to shrug it off and carry on? While we’re told her comedy style comes from the tragic events in her life, we never really witness this in full. If making people laugh is about connection, she spends a lot of time staying away from such things which is the entire basis of her relationship with Paddy Considine’s, who’s bloody great as usual, middle/upper-class Angus, an educated, if slightly effeminate book-shop owner – the complete opposite of Funny Cow.
Shergold and Pitts’ film has all the hallmarks for a more focused, honest play because it is an intriguing piece of work. There are issues with the examples of historic British comedy in that era, which probably wouldn’t translate outside the UK, and something that’s not quite right that means you never quite, fully connect but as a showcase for Peake’s talent Funny Cow is a wonderful, unique vehicle which she leads expertly.