Funny Woman (Sky Max) is a little bit Mrs Maisel and a little bit Carry On. Over six episodes, this charming adaptation of the popular 2014 Nick Hornby novel Funny Girl has taken its new, more mature name and blossomed into a colourful romp through the swinging 60s. Gemma Arterton is Barbara Parker, a beauty queen from the rock factory who loves radio comedy and having a laugh with her dad. She may be in line to marry the best-looking butcher in Blackpool, but the trouble is that nobody is interested in what she has to say. “I am here, if you want to ask me anything?” she suggests to a local reporter, after she has just been crowned Miss Blackpool Belle, 1964. “No thanks, I’ll just make the rest up,” he says, sleazily, like the good fictional TV journalist that he is.
If this is the kind of world she is living in, then Barbara is having none of it. In the way that modern series about bygone eras often do, Funny Woman wages a gratifying, ahead-of-its-time war against sexism on all fronts. Barbara spreads her wings and flees to London, where she hopes to become a performer of some kind. She watches Lucille Ball on the television at the launderette, and dreams about her future. “I’d love to get paid to muck about,” she says, wistfully. It isn’t long before fate intervenes, though having the face of Gemma Arterton probably helps her along the way.
Barbara is a funny woman, not that anyone in London initially gets it much more than they did in Blackpool. She gets a job in a department store selling hats to rich women, who do not appreciate her bluntness when she is asked for her opinion on what these hats actually look like. “She’s from up north,” sighs her manager, before telling her off and trying to squash her plucky northern spirit, like everyone else.
Eventually, she ticks off every item in the “single woman in the 1960s” list: she gets a salt-of-the-earth flatmate, Marge, who hangs her pants up in the kitchen to dry; she has an encounter with a less-than-chivalrous gentleman who promises to show her a good night out; she does some nightclub work that edges more towards glamour than glamorous. Then, finally, she finds herself a real-life old-fashioned showbiz agent in the form of Rupert Everett, hamming it up a storm. “We’re not trying to pick you up for mucky sex,” he insists, when he spots this “blond bombshell” at the bar.
Nothing about this drama much bothers to reinvent the wheel. Barbara is an “ooh, what am I like?” character – a bit ditsy, a bit naive, but a powerhouse of charisma. She puts her northern foot in it, constantly, by pronouncing “eau de toilette” as “eau de toilet”, and says things like, “I look like a boiled egg in a tea cosy!” when trying on bobble hats. When she finally creeps towards a role in a television sitcom, she becomes the plucky newcomer taking on the establishment, and a woman in a man’s world, fighting for her place in it. She changes her name to Sophie Straw, and has to prove that she isn’t too pretty or too northern to be funny. It’s all rather lightweight, but by the end of it, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t rooting for her to become the next Barbara Windsor.
It is familiar, then, but there’s something rather lovely in its familiarity. As Barbara/Sophie, Arterton is captivating. Having star power and managing to convey it on screen are not necessarily the same thing, but she manages to get her appeal across brilliantly. When she starts working with a group of Footlights-ish writers and directors, mostly posh, all southern, it really starts to come together. Sometimes, television about television can come across as self-indulgent or pleased with itself, but this makes writing a comedy show in the swinging 60s look like a lot of fun, even if it does appear that most of the hard work takes place in a village hall. Naturally, there is a romantic subplot, as she gets swept up in the excitement of London and stardom. But, which suitor will she choose?
Like Nolly, Russell T Davies’s love letter to early-80s television and its stars, this is a nostalgic recreation of a particular period in entertainment, in this case, the 60s. It tuts at the misogyny of the grotesque beauty contest boss, and of the entitled married man who thinks a shop assistant is his own personal prey; but it also carries a fondness for the spirit of the era that, realistically or not, Barbara manages to tame for her own purposes. It’s TV as comfort food, and I was happily sated by it.
• This article was amended on 11 February 2023 to correctly credit the photograph to Vishal Sharma. Based on information provided, an earlier version had credited a different photographer.
Funny Woman is screening on Sky Max in the UK, with an Australian release date to be advised