Funny Cow is a difficult film to write about. Maxine Peake is the star of the film and its executive producer and my admiration for her commitment to her craft and to working-class socialist politics is boundless. Add to that the filming in Saltaire and elsewhere in Bradford and Leeds and I’m certainly compromised. In some ways, I think that the most interesting aspect of the film, apart from Maxine Peake’s wonderful performance, is the range of positions adopted by various critics and commentators about the film and its depictions of Northern working-class life from the 1950s through to the 1980s.
Funny Cow is a fictional biopic of a female stand-up comedian, presented almost as a kind of arthouse ‘essay film’ about working-class life. The narrative jumps backwards and forwards during the life of the unnamed central character who is shown as a child (‘Funny Calf’) in the 1950s (played by Macy Shackleton), (very) briefly as a young wife in the 1960s (Hebe Beardsall) and finally as ‘Funny Cow’ in the 1970s and 1980s. At times, the fourth wall is broken and Maxine as Funny Cow talks to the camera. At other times she visits her old haunts and meets her younger self. Individual sequences are introduced with inter-titles. Throughout the narrative, Funny Calf/Cow wears bright shades of red, culminating in a red Triumph Stag car as her chariot – thus subverting the chauvinistic symbolic identity of the car (second only to the E-type in signifying macho posturing?). ‘Funny Cow’ is never given a first name. I assume that the nickname is meant to signify that process by which in the North of England (and other communities, I guess) derogatory names are given to best friends, almost as endearments – “stop it, you daft bugger!” etc.
The genesis of the project appears to have come from the meeting of the writer Tony Pitts and the actors Maxine Peake and Paddy Considine on the production of Red Riding: 1980, the second in the trilogy of TV films from 2009 based on the books by David Peace. All three were actors then and Pitts wrote Funny Cow, presumably with Peake in mind. I heard Peake discussing the production on radio and I think she said that convincing Considine to act in Funny Cow made it viable for financiers because he has a ‘known’ profile in the cinema. Much as I really like Paddy Considine, he is decidedly miscast in Funny Cow. Or perhaps it’s just a badly-written part? Either way it is a shame, because I thought his scenes were the only ones that just didn’t work. I couldn’t believe that under a wig and behind a pair of glasses was a great actor. I couldn’t believe in his character at all. He’s supposed to be an effete ‘intellectual’ running an enormous bookshop (without any discernible customers or staff) and living in a mansion decorated with artworks. Funny Cow starts a relationship with him, seemingly to get away from her abusive husband – or possibly hoping for an Educating Rita scenario? I did also wonder if this was a conscious role-reversal of the relationship between Joe Lampton and the industrialist’s daughter in Room at the Top (1958). It’s interesting that each scene in Funny Cow conjures up these memories. I think it’s a function of the episodic narrative.
Among the other familiar faces for UK audiences Alun Armstrong excels as a stand-up comedian in the pubs and clubs coming to the end of his career. It’s painful to watch but utterly convincing. He finds himself acting as Funny Cow’s mentor, not necessarily by choice. Other well-known names and faces appear in bit parts throughout the film.
Apart from a miscast Considine, the other weaknesses in the film hinge on the difficulty of representing the North of England of the 1950s-80s in 2018. It’s ironic that the streets of back-to-back houses depicted in the film are actually located in the World Heritage site of Saltaire – artisan’s dwellings in the model town built by Titus Salt. In at least one shot you can see Baildon Moor on the other side of the Aire Valley. They certainly confused Mary Beard on the BBC2’s ‘Front Row Late’ who thought that the National Trust had ‘sanitised’ them in Manchester. But she’s got a point. It’s impossible to recreate the Ripper Years of the late 1970s in Bradford and Leeds (although Red Riding made a valiant attempt). Everywhere is now a lot cleaner, partly because there are few dirty industries left and partly because many of the terraces have been replaced by modern housing. The other problem, for historical dramas is that representations of the working-class North of England in the 1970s (or 1960s) have become reified (i.e. made concrete, permanent) by a relatively limited number of successful films. Films like East is East (1999) for 1970s Salford/Bradford or Billy Elliot (2000) for 1980s Co. Durham, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) for Nottingham in the late 1950s or A Taste of Honey (1961) for Salford in the late 1950s and Charlie Bubbles (1969) for the devastation of old housing torn down in Manchester. TV has never really had the same problem since TV drama has very often been made in the North – in fact I’d argue that it is as familiar as London as a location.
But if we step away from the location issues, the real question is, “What is the film about?” or “What is it for?”. It isn’t simply a comedy. And it isn’t a faux biopic about a real female comedy performer (though Marti Caine has been widely touted as an inspiration for Peake’s character). If anything, the film is a satire on male chauvinism which has a terrible ending in which Funny Cow finally succeeds by adopting the homophobic racist gags of the Bernard Manning type of performer in order to put down an oafish, sexist man in the audience. I hated myself for laughing at what was an undoubtedly funny but ultimately degrading scene. This is where I fail. I never went to a ‘working man’s club’. As a lower middle-class grammar school boy in a town without heavy industry those clubs were very exotic for me in the 1960s and 1970s. I did watch the Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club on Granada as well as The Comedians in the 1970s. These shows were certainly sexist and racist but on TV comedians couldn’t be ‘blue’. I watched some of the shows again on YouTube and there is enough humanity in them to mean that they are still funny to me despite my winces at the social attitudes. Is the kind of performance in Funny Cow with its prolific use of the ‘c’ word more ‘authentic’? Is it somehow empowering for a female performer? I don’t know.
A few weeks before I saw Funny Cow I watched a biopic of the Irish comedian Dave Allen on BBC2. The final section of Funny Cow, which depicts a successful comedian being interviewed on TV, reminded me very much of the Dave Allen bio. Partly it was the incessant smoking but also the melancholy. Part of that melancholy is the situation in which Funny Cow finds herself abandoned in different ways by her brother (Stephen Graham, who also plays her father in the 1950s) and her mother (Lindsey Coulson). I wish I could remember what Funny Cow actually says in those later scenes, but I don’t think she comes over as a woman who has succeeded. Perhaps in the end Funny Cow is a kind of salutary lesson about what women had to endure in Northern working-class communities? I haven’t read any commentaries on the film that fully make sense of it and I’m still struggling. In the ‘Front Row Late’ discussion referenced above, the three critics generally disagreed about what they’d seen in the film. Paul Morley argued strongly for the film as illustrating the thesis that it was difficult to extricate yourself from your roots in Northern working-class communities without then being corrupted and compromised when you join the middle-classes. The only response is to turn back. But this too is impossible. This was the basis for the Albert Finney film Charlie Bubbles back in 1969 – that feeling that you are caught between two different social classes and that you don’t really belong in either.
Maxine Peake is magnifique in Funny Cow, but I think I’d rather have seen a film based on her play about Beryl Burton.