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The mid 1970’s were a bleak time for comedy: If you need proof, just check out the lapel sizes in Granada ‘variety’ series The Comedians. You could count the number of women comics on one hand – though one of the few who made it was Sheffield born Marti Caine, who beat Victoria Wood to win TV talent show New Faces in 1975. Caine went on to have her own series and sitcom, and later returned as host of the show that made her name. Besides being a comic, she was an accomplished dancer and singer, releasing five albums on BBC records (lost disco classic ‘Love the Way You Love Me’ was included on a Late Night Talescompilation). Phil Oakey of The Human League even offered to write a song for her. Caine was a big name for almost 2 decades before sadly dying of lymphatic cancer in 1995, at age 50.

Her success was remarkable because of what she had to overcome to get there. Her father died of lung cancer when she was seven. Caine’s fragile mother, unable to cope, sought solace in drink; the young Marti was put in an orphanage, and later lived with her grandfather, who sexually abused her. Her mother committed suicide, and it was this tragedy which pushed Marti Caine into comedy; motivated by financial necessity, she took her first paid gig simply to raise money to cover the funeral expenses. Caine faced these accumulated traumas with a smile, mining humour from the darkest of experiences.

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Funny Cow takes inspiration from her particular strain of Yorkshire stoicism, and is an ideal vehicle for Maxine Peake, the story of a funny woman who refuses to be defined by her class or history. It’s refreshing to see a drama in which the female protagonist admits she is incapable of love, and discovers she is happier alone – an almost revolutionary philosophy in this romance-obsessed world. What Adrian Shergold’s film lacks is a wider cultural context; Funny Cow shies away from addressing many of the barriers to success a female comedian might have encountered in 1970’s Britain.

The narrative zig-zags backwards and forwards, with early scenes showing a grim Yorkshire childhood, the main character played by young Mary Shackleton with a mischievous exuberance. A disturbing seam of male violence runs throughout, first appearing in the guise of Funny Cow’s dad (Stephen Graham) who takes his belt to his daughter when she refuses to make him a brew. ‘Are you angry dad?’ she asks. ‘You seem angry.’ Funny Cow is too defiant to be broken: she retaliates against a gang of bullies by cheerily scooping up a pile of dog muck, and chasing them off. There’s one fabulous scene where Graham puts an old bath in the back yard – filled by dozens of trips to the kitchen sink – and Funny Cow pretends it’s a swimming pool, holding her breath underwater to entertain an audience of locals.

Hebe Beardsell plays the teenage Funny Cow (the character’s name is never revealed) falling in love and marrying local charmer Bob. Tony Pitts – who also wrote the screenplay – plays middle-aged Bob, a barely contained bundle of cruelty and rage. Many of his scenes are uncomfortable to watch: witness the way he humiliates a fellow drinker who dares challenge his queue barging (Kevin Rowland from Dexys, a surprisingly natural presence). The threat of domestic abuse is ever-present but when Bob finally snaps, it’s still horrible and shocking.

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A mentor arrives in the shabby guise of worn-out veteran Lenny (Alun Armstrong, excellent) who offers hard-won wisdom, in between gigs and fags. ‘It’s not about being funny’, he tells her, ‘it’s about surviving.’ Other showbiz wannabes include Vic Reeves as a dreadful ventriloquist, and Richard Hawley and Corrinne Bailey-Ray as musical duo, Crème & Coffee (Hawley also composed the film’s score, contributing a selection of sweetly soulful numbers). After a disastrous, panicked audition, Funny Cow hits her stride when she steps in as a last minute replacement at a local club. It’s still a man’s world; in order to satisfy the crowd, she’s forced to peddle the same blue, vaguely racist material as her male counterparts.

A new love comes in the guise of artistic, sensitive bookshop owner Angus (Paddy Considine), who couldn’t be more different than the aggressive Bob; he likes fine wine, Shakespeare and classical music. But oddly, he never attends any of her gigs, or even asks about her material; it’s as if Peake’s character is living in two worlds, and doesn’t quite belong in either. ‘Life has always been too much for me, and not enough’, she says, in one of several direct-to-camera monologues.

We see Funny Cow at the start of her career, and when she’s an established name, living in a big house and performing to an invited audience. Where’s the struggle? Pitts the writer has a flair for poetic grit; he understands these characters, and has clearly created something from the heart but there are a few instances where he over-eggs the pudding (spoilers to follow). One character commits suicide but the event explodes out of nowhere, and feels a tad exploitative. Funny Cow’s mother is played by the terrific Chrstine Bottomley in the early section, and Lindsay Coulson in later scenes. Here she has turned into a lonely alcoholic, and it’s quietly heartbreaking watching her drink in a house where all the furniture has been repossessed. It doesn’t need anything else but Pitts opts to pile on the anguish: Peake drops by, pulling up in a flash sports car, and finds Coulson chain-slurping gin with shaky hands. A hysterical howl follows, that teeters on the edge of parody. Imagine a collaboration between the League of Gentleman and Lars Von Trier. On second thoughts, don’t.

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There’s a club for workaholic actors, of which James Nesbitt and Olivia Coleman are the current chairman and secretary. Maxine Peake was once a member; several years ago, she was so omni-present, I dreamt she and I were in fact related. A cheap joke, and I don’t wish to diminish her talent, because in the right role, she can be remarkable (BBC4’s Hancock & Joan being one shining example). Pitts wrote Funny Cowespecially for her, and the part fits her like a glove. Her timing in the club scenes is great but it’s in the moments where the mask comes off that Funny Cow hits hardest, revealing the hurt that lies beneath the gags.

Funny Cow doesn’t have an proper ending, which is where a more chronological structure might have been beneficial. There’s no big finale, no comedy rim-shot, not even a Mike Yarwood style ‘and this is me’ closing song. It’s a film that feels unfocused, a rough edit of something that might actually be a masterpiece. Nevertheless, if you’re in the mood for a helping of Northern guts and gallows humour, you won’t be disappointed.

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