Dir Adrian Shergold, with Maxine Peake, Paddy Considine and Tony Pitts
A film about a female northern comic in the 1970s that wasn’t condescending or sentimental. The narrowness and joylessness of that kind of life was full-on, undercut with some great scenes of silliness by Funny Cow and her mother. It didn’t try to suggest (as the otherwise very good A Very English Scandal, about Jeremy Thorpe, does) that Black and mixed-heritage people normally had jobs as parliamentary ushers or Dublin photographers in the 1960s and 70s. Any feminist subtext was partly undermined by Funny Cow being so sui generis. And it had its own scale of grim. When she leaves the bathroomless terraced house of her childhood and moves to a dump of a flat above a laundrette – complete with yellowing newspaper over the windows – with her not-yet violent husband and thinks it’s wonderful, she’s right. She has the same euphoria when she moves in with the middle-class Angus and explores his Observer-supplement house with its two bathrooms.
It was episodic in form and left gaps for you to complete. Maxine Peake was brilliant as the Funny Cow (she had no other name): a blob of red in a grey world, fearless/reckless in her dealings with her violent father and husband. She was full of life – the scene where she first met her husband was exhilarating. Their marriage was as a descent into harsh words and beatings, but at the same time there was an energetic but mirthless scene involving a tin tray and the two of them dancing to “Mule Train” on the pub jukebox.
Some things didn’t quite work – the relationship with Angus was a parody straight out of Educating Rita (although her rejection of him was also the film’s rejection of the middle-class intellectual narrative), and her sudden success as a club comic was almost a fairytale. And did she have no reaction to the suicide of her mentor? Was that one of the gaps we were meant to fill in? Or was it the film’s comment on the tragedy of no longer being funny?
But other things were very evocative. That fear of bullies and violence, for example; Funny Cow’s retaliation to bullies defined her from childhood onwards, but Angus’s freezing when intimidated by her husband was the kind of humiliation that the majority of people experience.