If Adrian Shergold’s film tells us anything about life in 1970s England, the overriding message is that being a female standup comedian was clearly no laughing matter. Take the eponymous Funny Cow for example – we are never told the character’s actual name and indeed, when we first meet her, she’s still Funny Calf (Macy Shackleton), a self-assured youngster with a tendency to live in a dream world and tell tall stories, something that earns her the undisguised hatred of her peers. She is going through what might be called a troubled childhood. Her mother (Christine Bottomley – and later in the film, Lindsey Coulson) is a hopeless alcoholic and her father (Stephen Graham) a short-tempered bully, but none of this is enough to subdue her fighting spirit.
Pretty soon, FC has grown up to be Maxine Peake and has acquired her own short-tempered bully of a husband, Bob (Tony Pitts, who also wrote the script). Bob is an aggressive slob, ever ready with a foul-mouthed put-down and a helpful head-butt whenever his wife steps out of line. But FC remains indomitable, and at a working men’s club one evening, has a kind of epiphany when she witnesses veteran comic, Lenny (Alun Armstrong), toiling his way through a time-worn routine to the undisguised derision of the audience. She is the one person there who finds him funny. She decides this is the life she is destined for and, whatever it takes, she’ll make it happen. The two of them form an uneasy alliance, as she follows him from gig-to-gig, watching his inexorable slide into oblivion while honing her own craft.
Funny Cow is a strangely unsettling film – it tells its story though a series of vignettes and cuts back and forth in time with a kind of gleeful exuberance, each section marked by hand written title cards. The stand-up routines we’re offered aren’t generally all that amusing – indeed, most of them are more like tortured confessionals, as FC talks direct to camera. It certainly isn’t a recruiting campaign for would be stand-ups. Even when she’s made a success of her chosen career, FC is shunned by virtually everyone she knows. A scene where she makes an uncomfortable visit to her brother, Mike (also played by Stephen Graham), and his family is particularly toe-curling.
It’s by no means a perfect film. The usually dependable Paddy Considine struggles somewhat as Angus, the middle class bookshop owner to whom FC runs when she realises she can no longer live with Bob. There’s nothing wrong with his performance per se, but the script somehow fails to give him a single line that convinces, making him little more a caricature, all vintage brandy and visits to the thee-ay-tah. It’s one of the film’s few missteps.
But one thing is for sure: Peake is an extraordinary presence in the lead role, displaying an almost luminous quality that seems to light up the screen whenever she appears. Here is a brilliant actor at the very height of her powers and this performance confirms her as one of the best and most versatile of her generation. It’s also a film that stays with me long after I’ve left the cinema, aided no doubt by Richard Hawley’s memorable theme song; he also makes a cameo here as a would-be performer at FC’s first disastrous audition.
Eagle-eyed viewers will spot some genuine comics in cameo roles: Dianne Morgan, Vic Reeves and John Bishop to name but three. Keep your eyes peeled for others.