Funny Cow review – Maxine Peake blazes in the dark days of standup

Peake is hypnotically belligerent as an ambitious club performer trampling over prejudice and sticky carpets on the 1970s comedy circuit

Maxine Peake dominates the screen as producer and star of this painful, angry film written by Tony Pitts and directed by Adrian Shergold, about a fictional female club comedian fighting her way to the top, or at least the middle, in 1970s Britain.

Maybe without Peake this would have looked merely strident or chaotic; and to be frank, even with Peake, it does flirt with some age-old cliches. Comedians are traditionally given centre stage in a drama on condition that they reveal themselves to be unhappy or empty inside. But Peake gives it a fierce, blazing energy and holds everything together through the magnetic force of her performance. Jim Moir, John Bishop, Kevin Eldon and Diane Morgan provide cameos (perhaps to underline the project’s comedy credentials) and the excellent Christine Bottomley is perhaps a bit underused as Peake’s mum.

This is a movie with bitter tang of Trevor Griffiths or Dennis Potter, or perhaps a darker and more nihilistic version of the 1979 television play Talent, about a housewife competing in a talent show, written by and starring Victoria Wood – someone who was a close friend and mentor to Peake. Her character occupies a world as gungy as a pub carpet or the inside of a brimming ashtray: a world of nastiness, misery, sexism and racism where comics might go on after an almost surreally grim stripper, and of course inevitably die: the sad porniness of the preceding act defeating the laughs.

Interestingly, Peake’s comedian, stage-named Funny Cow and never known as anything else, finds success when she goes on after an emollient Peters-and-Lee-type singing turn (a tiny cameo for Corinne Bailey Rae and Richard Hawley) whose gentle music has cleaned the audience’s palate for comedy. But she has to accept the reality of doing racist and homophobic material in exchange for acceptance, though finding some relief in savaging a misogynist heckler in the crowd.

The fuel of her own comedy is a mix of survivalist rage and reckless courage and a simple inability to imagine doing anything else. Interestingly, at the height of her success, if success it is, she is shown driving around in a ketchup-red sports car (a bloke’s car) and elsewhere going into a Judy Garland I-could-go-on-singing monologue in front of what could be television cameras – or it could just be happening inside her head – in which she just sounds depressed. Fame has not, as they say, brought her happiness; but, interestingly, Peake shows that she never particularly expected it to.

As a child, she is played with eerie self-possession by Macy Shackleton, infuriating her abusive, brutal dad, played by Stephen Graham, and the dysfunctional relationship replicates itself later when she marries Bob (played by Tony Pitts), a violent, controlling man whom she has to challenge and placate in almost exactly the same way. Bizarrely, seeing seedy and depressive comedian Lenny (Alun Armstrong) on stage grinding through his dire material in front of the chattering drinkers, unlocks something in her, and she also finds herself falling for educated bookshop owner Angus, a slightly cartoony-aesthete role for Paddy Considine – although weirdly these scenes are filmed in what looks like a library.

Pitts shuffles the narrative of Funny Cow’s life: it is not aspirationally shaped in any way, nor is there any overreaching crisis at the moment of showbiz triumph. This is not a Billy Elliot or an Educating Rita. We see her post-success, and then pre-success, and then post-success again, and she looks a bit older (or younger) and flashier dressed (or less flashy) but always cynical and disillusioned, and we never see her with an adoring public, receiving what comics are supposed to yearn for: love from strangers. Weirdly, the one time she really looks happy is during a rare happy moment with the hateful Bob in the pub: she swipes a tin beer tray and they sing Mule Train, gleefully annoying the lugubrious publican and a dour local with their anarchy.

The scattershot array of scenes has a rangy energy, although it is a bit loosely configured. There is a longish scene in which Funny Cow wanders saucer-eyed through Angus’s posh house with the aria from Catalani’s La Wally belting out on the soundtrack: a scene that perhaps might have been better deployed in the deleted scenes section of the DVD. Well, never mind: it’s all part of the freewheeling storytelling style Pitts has gone for. There is no moral, and in the mantra of Seinfeld, there is no hugging, no learning. There is just a hypnotically belligerent performance from Peake, whose anti-heroine explodes like a firework, burning herself to an ashy crisp.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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