Tuesday 17 April 2018

No laughing matter: "Funny Cow"

Funny Cow is one of those projects which, if British TV had any ambition or money, might have made for a ten- or thirteen-part series to rival the best in current US drama. Instead, it's been converted into a cosily circumscribed jumble that never really settles on a tone, flipping between them in a way that might have made sense over the flow of a season but which, in movie form, just seems oddly choppy. The promising throughline is one woman's rise through the fustily hidebound, generally chauvinistic ranks of the Northern comedy club scene of the 1970s, the crucible in which were forged such hardy performers as Crissy Rock and Coronation Street's late, lamented Liz Dawn. Adrian Shergold's film, written by the former Emmerdale actor Tony Pitts, shows us a North where there quite frankly isn't all that much to crack wise or laugh about. A post-War grimscape left to fall into further disrepair, it's lorded over by petty male tyrants who are condescending when they aren't being physically abusive; they show up in the working men's clubs where Maxine Peake's heroine makes her bones expecting the beer and strippers their position demands, not some gobby lass strafing them from the stage with withering putdowns. 

That the film's vision is inherently piecemeal, episodic in the televisual sense, can be seen from the title cards that divide Peake's rise into "bits" ("the first bit", "the next bit", etc.). The best bits are those where the cast take Pitts' writing and lend it a kind of amplitude. Peake enters into a rather charming double-act with Paddy Considine as a polonecked bookseller who fancies himself quite the philosopher - not the pretentious prat he may at first resemble - and who does as much to expand our our heroine's horizons ("Fuckin' 'ell, two bathrooms," she gasps upon touring his most des of res) as he does to point up her intellectual inferiority. You'd happily watch these performers circle one another for weeks at a time on prime-time ITV. By contrast, Pitts sticks himself with the third-wheel role of Peake's brooding husband, a sideburned obstacle wheeled darkly into place whenever the film needs a measure of tension - and perhaps the foremost illustration of the how the endless skipping forward ("the next bit") undercuts every character offered a turn over the course of these 100 minutes.

No sooner have Peake and Considine got together, they're having an argument about having kids; Alun Armstrong's fading stand-up Lenny Lennon, dying one death after another and sensing the end is truly nigh the minute our girl sets foot on stage, deserves a whole tragicomic episode to himself, but is here limited to poignant sidebars and cutaways. Indeed, there are so many characters vying for our attention - and so many cameos from Richard Hawley, who wrote and sings the theme tune - that you feel Funny Cow losing sight of its heroine's trajectory: she doesn't even get on stage for an hour, and thereafter there's no sense of any career progression. As with its protagonist, so with the movie. Peake's working so hard to hold everything together and make the film work that you do find yourself wanting to stand up and cheer the effort, but the framework she's operating within has, through the usual lack of funds and development, allowed something potentially major to dwindle into something fundamentally minor, to stray from funny ha-ha into the merely funny-strange.

Funny Cow opens in selected cinemas from Friday. 

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