Funny Cow is a film about stand-up comedy: so why isn’t it funny?

It is unfortunate that nothing Maxine Peake’s stand-up comic says, either on or off stage, is remotely amusing.

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Comedy concert movies enjoyed a brief heyday in the 1970s and 1980s (Richard Pryor Live in Concert, Bette Midler’s Divine Madness) but stand-up itself has never been successfully dramatised in cinema. Put an actor at the microphone, even one as good as Dustin Hoffman (Lenny) or Tom Hanks (Punchline), and the electricity on which live comedy runs is hit by an instant power cut. In theory, that shouldn’t be a problem for the 1970s-set British film Funny Cow, which doesn’t express much interest in the nitty-gritty of stand-up anyway. When a plucky Rotherham lass (Maxine Peake), annoyingly known only as “Funny Cow” in the script, decides she wants to be a comic, she need only befriend a dishcloth-faced old pro (Alun Armstrong) and then she’s all set for her big break. Tightly-structured, carefully crafted gags are strictly for the birds: she just insults the hecklers, tells some Christmas cracker jokes and is topping the bill in no time.

Initial signs suggest the movie will be a rags-to-riches story as she claws her way out of an impoverished background. An introduction shows her delivering a stage routine in a theatrical setting. She’s wearing a sparkly red dress (everything about her is red, from her flash car to the thong glimpsed when she lifts her skirt at disapproving relatives) and even has her own pianist on stage, though nothing in the film indicates that she is the sort of comic given to musical interludes, à la Midler or Victoria Wood, or that she can carry a tune. (A misjudged episode in which she bangs a tray on her head repeatedly to accompany a pub jukebox fails to settle the matter either way.) Childhood reflections in between her gags provide the cues for flashbacks to misty terraced streets so stylised in their poverty that Monty Python urchins singing “Every Sperm is Sacred” would not feel out of place.

The framing device of the stage show is abandoned halfway through, when the flashbacks suddenly start emanating from a different performance altogether – in this case, a maudlin TV special that Funny Cow appears to be hosting. We see her living with an abusive husband (played by the film’s screenwriter, Tony Pitts), who makes good on his promise to punch her in the face if she enters a talent contest. Weirdly, the brute does nothing when he discovers that she has been stepping out with a local bookshop owner, other than giving the man in question (Paddy Considine) a brief fright. Did husband and wife discuss this episode? Does Funny Cow know that he found out about her dalliance? Evidently the script editor didn’t think to ask and nor did any of the film’s ten-plus producers and executive producers.

Among those is Peake herself, who could be forgiven for imagining that the picture would provide her with a cinematic springboard. Her toughness and intelligence are beyond doubt but there’s not enough variety in the writing to suit the range she has shown elsewhere. (This, remember, is a performer who has excelled equally in Dinnerladies and as Hamlet.)

And while it’s admirable that the film honours its un-PC period setting by having Funny Cow deliver a joke in a comic Pakistani accent, it is unfortunate that nothing the character says, either on or off stage, is remotely amusing. When she’s trying to be sassy, it comes across as chippy. Attempts at wit (“Why is easy listening music so hard to listen to?”) sound merely wan.

There has already been a lively film about a working-class woman outstripping her more experienced mentor: that was Educating Rita, which launched the film career of Julie Walters, another actor previously best known, like Peake, for stage and television work. Walters had in her favour authentic warmth and a bottomless supply of fizzy one-liners, whereas Peake too often looks isolated up there on a screen too big for such sketchy material. Celebrity guests both comic (Kevin Eldon, John Bishop, Vic Reeves) and musical (Kevin Rowland, Corinne Bailey Rae and Richard Hawley, who also composed the score) make fleeting appearances. One or two scenes and they’re off. Lucky them. 

Funny Cow is released on 13 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war