Tickling the female funny bone: Maxine Peake shines as Funny Cow
It’s not funny, this debate we’ve had recently as to whether women can make an audience laugh as much as a man. Try telling Marti Caine, Victoria Wood, Julie Walters ,French and Saunders, Joan Rivers and even one J. Aniston that until Melissa McCarthy, Fey and Poehler came along there were no funny females on our screens.
But the superb British film Funny Cow, out this week in the UK, starring Maxine Peake, certainly shows what comediennes of the 1970s might have experienced on their route upwards.
Like Maxine Peake herself, Funny Cow (we don’t know her name) is straight off the cobbles of the industrial north, Coronation Street before the sponsors got a grip. Growing to maturity with a future of being slapped around by her lumpen husband Bob ( played by the film’s writer Tony Gill) Funny Cow sees the men performing on stage at the Working Men’s Clubs and thinks, I should do that. When in 2018 there are still suggestions that women aren’t tough enough for a TV show such as Have I Got News For You, one can imagine there will be more than cobbles in Funny Cow’s road to the top.
"That gift to be able to make people laugh in the climate we are in today, to bring so much joy to people – that’s a gift from a special place.”
“Tony and I had also worked on the Red Riding trilogy,” Maxine explains. “ We’d been chatting and he said, ‘I really want to write something for you, any burning desires?’ And I said that I had this fascination with working mens clubs and music hall, these strongholds of the working class yet where so many talents got the chance to progress, to shows such as New Faces and Opportunity Knocks. I loved Marti Caine as a child, she was this mixture of glamour and self-deprecation and warmth and she’d come up that route. Tony said, ‘ I know that world’ and he went away and wrote it.
“I was so worried about doing this though,” she adds, “as I was worried people won’t think I am funny. One of my biggest regrets is that I ended up becoming a bit of a straight actor, I was obsessed with Victoria Wood and Julie Walters as a child too. Someone else says she’s going to write me a comedy and if so I will camp outside of their door, I am desperate to do it. That gift to be able to make people laugh in the climate we are in today, to bring so much joy to people – that’s a gift from a special place.”
"With acting, I think you’ve got to have a need to do it, no back up plan at all. If I meet people now with a Plan B, I think forget it, you don’t want it. "
Did she ever identify with the sheer terror ( for many) of standing on stage doing stand-up, with auditioning for acting? Maxine explains for her that’s not necessarily a fear.
“The whole point of Funny Cow is to show it’s not easy, there’s graft, and there’s got to be a little bit of madness if performing is something you want to do. With acting, I think you’ve got to have a need to do it, no back up plan at all. If I meet people now with a Plan B, I think forget it, you don’t want it. Failure can’t be an option.
“Funny Cow is nostalgic in the sense it shows a time when the working mens clubs were the way for the working class to perform their way to top, and now it’s difficult for anyone to get there who hasn’t already got the privilege in-built to help them, but even so part of the success of performing is blind faith. I auditioned to go to RADA and I had this vision of going even though I couldn’t afford it. Everyone told me, you’re mad. You have to be naïve and have a blind faith at the same time. And I wasn’t a natural talent at RADA at all, my acting technique was non-existent. I just happened to get better the more acting I did, probably the same with stand up.”
Apart from the joy of Peake’s multi-layered performance, Funny Cow, directed by Adrian Shergold, has a myriad of socially accurate details of the time – from the dreary strippers of the working men’s clubs, interspersing the variety acts, to the casual domestic violence of the time. Funny Cow is brutalised by both husband and father.
“It really was part of life,” Maxine exclaims. “ I was talking to my mum about it, how fellas would go down the pub on a Friday and then you’d see the women in the snow with a black eye. She said she would see three or four women with bruising on their face. It’s not just endemic to the working class though, it was universal.”
“TV and film need to start portraying women with a sense of humour too.”
Does Maxine think that the debate, no the surprise, of the last few years, that Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Melissa McCarthy were actually funny – so much so that it got written repeatedly about, was overhyped?
“I think it’s still hard for women to make opportunities on the comedy circuit,” she replies. “When you think of something like the fuss of Have I Got News for You, I’ve been asked to go on those panel shows too. I think what could put some women off is that there’s going to be no other women on them, and if you’re going to be the only one, someone could say to themselves, ‘why do I want to sit on a show with a load of men?’ That’s actually why you have to say yes, but you understand why a woman might say no. In the same way, it’s not that much fun for a man to be the only one in a large group of women.
“TV and film need to start portraying women with a sense of humour too,” she adds. “There’s a complete lack of it unless it’s all out comedy. Just give her a bit of a sense of humour, you know?
“We were all bereft as we lost Victoria Wood but it was therapy, because we could laugh at ourselves and how ridiculous as women we could be. Now there’s a lot of talk that women comedians shouldn’t talk about periods, or pubic hair – in some ways we’ve gone back to the 1950s. Why shouldn’t we? We go through a lot, us women.”
Funny Cow is released in the UK in cinemas on Friday, April 20, 2018