Tori Attwood talks northern humour, female comedians and identity ahead of the actors’ new movie
Funny Cow may centre around the life of a comedienne, but the narrative is full of heartbreak more than hilarity.
Trampled down, beaten and belittled, Maxine Peake plays a comedienne who refuses to give up her dreams of forging a stand-up career amidst the sexist 70s. 'Funny Cow' – who is only know by her stage name - is a witty, spirited woman, despite her unforgiving circumstances; a cycle of abuse, first from her father and then from her husband Bob, an intimidatingly fierce performance by former Emmerdale actor and Funny Cow Writer Tony Pitts. Yet the chaos of her domestic life only fuels her dreams further. Fierce in the face of rampant sexism, Funny Cow is, despite the odds, determined to make it on a brutal comedy scene that isn’t about how funny you are, it’s about survival.
“It sounds strange, but it was a joy playing a character that is so complex,” explains Peake on the role of Funny Cow. “I always said that if Funny Cow got made into a film I could retire, because it’s the role of a lifetime.”
The film is set against the backdrop of the comedy circuit of the men’s working clubs of the 70’s and 80’s, something that both Peake and Pitts have a fascination with. “To me Funny Cow is an unblinking obituary and an unblinking unsentimental commentary to a culture that I grew up in,” explains Pitts. He began writing Funny Cow after meeting Peake on the set of Red Riding 1980 and describes being instantly inspired to write for her. Both Pitts, who was raised in Sheffield, and Bolton-born Peake grew up around the gritty atmosphere of the Northern clubs and were eager to tell the tale of a harsh yet poetic scene.
“I’ve got no choice. I can’t do what everybody else does, I can’t be a civilian, I’ve no backbone. I’ve got a funny bone instead.” – Funny Cow
From the harrowing scenes of domestic abuse and her mother’s alcoholism to a faltering first performance at a talent show, the viewer is with Funny Cow throughout a turbulent journey of disheartening life lessons. Yet despite the intimate experiences shared, Funny Cow’s real name is never revealed. Pitts says this was a significant detail Pitts introduced.
“It’s because the film is all about identity and finding that sense of self,” Pitts explains. “It happened as I was writing it that I came to realise that this character doesn’t have a name. Life throws all kinds of labels at you, but you don’t have to take it. Funny Cow makes her own name.”
The film is rooted in the North, offering a tribute to a bygone comedy era. Many of the jokes are from Pitt’s memories of the time, meaning that sexism, racism and overall obscenity are all fair game.
With such a strong Northern voice throughout the film, do the actors think the North has a particular style when it comes to comedy?
“I don’t think we’ve a particular type of comedy, but we’re funny people,” comments Peake. “I think accents are often labelled and categorised – northern accent, working class accent, educated accent. And although its often criticised, – but northern people have a real sort of depth to their voices and a way with language that really knows the weight of it.”
Heckled by lecherous lads, dismissed by talent scouts and warned that ‘women just can’t do comedy’, Funny Cow paints a picture of a daunting 70’s comedic scene, especially for women. So, have things changed?
“I think things have changed for women in comedy, but it is still a tough gig for a woman. But when women break through they really do break through – just look at Victoria Wood, Caroline Aherne, Sarah Millican. Things are changing.”
Though she gave a blazing performance in Funny Cow, Peake is dismissive of establishing a stand-up career of her own. However, co-star Pitts believes she has what it takes to make it as a comedian – she just needs a push in the right direction, he says.
Whilst the title may hint at comedy, Funny Cow’s main offering is it’s gritty, uncomfortably awkward and often brutal life lessons.
“It shows that life is tough,” Peake explains. “But, despite everything, you can make a success of it.”