Many comics seem to be insecure, unhappy, lonely. They turn to comedy as a way of dealing with their emotional pain, and they often use humour as a defence mechanism. And this the plight of the heroine in Funny Cow. This unapologetically bleak tale follows a damaged woman trying to make it in the male-dominated world of stand-up comedy in northern England during the 1960s. This was time when women on the stage were either singers or strippers.
The film features a superb performance from Maxine Peake, an actress better known for her television work in series like Shameless, in the title role. Funny Cow is a sombre character study that follows the plight of our heroine, whose name we never learn, a misfit child growing up in a hard scrabble town in the 50s and 60s. Her life has never been an easy one – as a child she was mercilessly teased and bullied by other children because of her rather odd behaviour; at home she suffered at the hands of her abusive father (Stephen Graham) and her mother turned to alcohol to dull her pain.
As an adult she hooked up with Mike (played by Tony Pitts, the film’s screenwriter), a violent and controlling thug who intimidated her, and whose main interaction with her seemed to be demanding his dinner or beating her when she displeased him. And she has a strange relationship with her estranged older brother Bob (played in a strangely effective piece of casting by Graham, who played her father in earlier scenes) and his cold cow of a wife. Paddy Considine plays one of the few sympathetic characters in the film with a nicely understated performance as Angus, a book shop owner who tries to interest our heroine in his passion for the arts and literature, which she casually dismisses as boring.
Lenny (Alun Armstrong) becomes her reluctant mentor when he takes her under his wing and introduces her to the stand-up circuit via the dreary, smoky world of grungy pubs and seedy working men’s clubs. He is a faded, jaded veteran of the circuit whose time is us – he is in his own words, “a comic zombie” who trots out the same tired old routine in unenthusiastic fashion to a largely apathetic audience who have heard it all before and interject the punch lines. The only laughs in the film come when the funny cow delivers her debut stand up performance, which is full of racist and homophobic jokes and cruel put downs of one particularly loud-mouthed punter. The audience in the club love it, but the laughs are overshadowed by the sad events that play out in the background.
Funny Cow is the debut feature screenplay for Pitts. He’s better known as an actor in films like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and TV series like Peaky Blinders. But he effectively steeps us in this seedy milieu. This is the first feature film for director Adrian Shergold in thirteen years. He’s mainly concentrated on television, and he captures the downbeat aesthetic of the 60s working class setting. Tony Slater Ling’s moody cinematography uses a brownish palette that adds to the overall tone of the piece.
Peake delivers a fiery, angry and passionate performance in the title role and she thoroughly dominates the film as the cynical and disillusioned heroine. Newcomer Mary Shackleford is also quite good as the younger eight-year old incarnation of the central character. Armstrong is excellent as the sad Lenny, while Lindsay Coulson portrays a sad, lonely and pathetic figure as her alcoholic mother.
Despite the word “funny” in the title, this is far from a cheery evening at the cinema – this is a bleak, downbeat and relentlessly grim tragi drama that recalls those kitchen sink dramas beloved of British cinema in the 60s. As a film set against the backdrop of the world of stand-up comedy it is far grimmer than anything in Seinfeld, or even Punchline, the 1988 film starring Sally Field and Tom Hanks. Funny Cow may also remind older audiences of The Entertainer, the John Osborne-penned tale of a faded seaside comic, which starred Laurence Olivier.
You may need a strong drink after the screening.
Director: Adrian Shergold
Cast: Maxine Peake, Alun Armstrong, Tony Pitts
Release Date: 26 July 2018
Rating: MA 15+
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television