The central theme of Funny Cow is the empowerment of women and the film is a bleak reminder of why the #metoo movement was needed 50 years ago.
Informally, in working class communities, especially in Northern England, the term ‘cow’ refers to an unpleasant or disliked woman. This is a term generally used by women towards their own gender, as in ‘she’s a jealous cow’ or ‘that one is a real miserable cow’. It is a derogatory term whose use is intended to demean the target of the insult and it is telling that throughout Adrian Shergold’s drama Maxine Peake is constantly referred to as ‘Funny Cow’ and never by the character’s real name. Akin to the gay community adopting the insulting term ‘queer’ to define their sexuality Funny Cow also adopts her nom de plume and owns, rather than being insulted by, this degrading term. Even so, she is aware of the indignity the term implies, evident when Lenny, a fellow comedian, introduces her as a Funny Cow. She hesitates before acknowledging ‘Aye, I’m a funny cow!’ She accepts being degraded and dejected without question and it is this accepted inequality that drives the narrative and gives this film real substance and depth.
Women may have received the vote decades before and been active during the war years a mere 15 years earlier but by the 1960’s their status was that of a second-class citizen. Married women were viewed as the property of their husband while those who were able to escape the confines of matrimony discovered their status in the workplace far lower than their male counterparts. Sexually women were fair game to appeal to the sexual gratification of men. When she has the courage to ask to perform stand-up on stage Funny Cow is told that the only way she will be watched is if she sings scantily dressed or performs striptease. The idea of a female comedian is an anathema to a predominantly male audience. At home she is married to a violent man whom she finds difficult to leave, a parallel with her own mother unable to leave her abusive father. Divorce was not easy for working class women. My mother once told me she had petitioned for divorce in the early 1960’s, refused by a magistrate who told her to go home and get on with it. The experience deterred her from petitioning again, leaving her trapped in a turbulent marriage for a further 15 years.
Peake’s anti-heroine is heartbreakingly brilliant and gives a faultless performance of a woman struggling to perform stand-up comedy in a male dominated society. Tony Pitts screenplay juxtaposes pathos and humour brilliantly and Peake delivers the comedy like a seasoned professional. I did wonder if John Bishop, who has a cameo part, gave Peake some off-screen tips. While surrounded by a brilliant supporting cast that includes Stephen Graham, Alun Armstrong, Paddy Considine and Diane Morgan the screen belongs to Peake who lives up to her reputation as one of our finest actors. Mention must be given to Lindsay Coulson as FC’s mother who, towards the end of the movie, gives a heartbreaking scene of the devastating realisation of an unfulfilled life.
Director Adrian Shergold binds the non-linear narrative together using flashbacks to explain FC’s motivation and, along with cinematographer Tony Slater Ling captures perfectly the gritty depiction of backstreet cobbles and the grim reality of working class life ‘up North’. FC is eventually rescued by Angus, a wealthy bookshop owner, who introduces her to a different life but one that again confines her and is unsatisfactory.
FC’s ultimate destiny is to discover the truth within herself, to find that life can be complete without a man and that a woman is able to be independent and free. This is a wonderful film that has much to say on many different levels and a testament to strong, independent women everywhere.
Initially seeing Maxine Peake’s image on the poster for the film I assumed this was a new stage play and am certain that Tony Pitts script will eventually find life on the stage.