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8 February 2023

An Everywoman on her way up

Funny Woman is a broad, old-fashioned comedy about an aspiring female comic in Sixties London with an indisputable star at its centre.

By Rachel Cooke

Morwenna Banks’ adaptation of Nick Hornby’s 2014 novel Funny Girl is adorable: a tonic up there with a new coat and a maraschino cherry on a cocktail stick.

But then, in Gemma Arterton it has an indisputably adorable star. I’m not exaggerating a bit when I say I could happily watch her goofing around in her blonde wig and her little coloured cardigans every night of the week. Comedy and a Lancashire accent suit her so well, she upstages even Rupert Everett, here speckled all over with liver spots and sporting a fuzzy wig and Ken Dodd teeth.

It’s called Funny Woman, a title I prefer to the book’s. Somehow, it feels like more of an acknowledgement that women weren’t really allowed to be funny in the Sixties, which is when the series is set (though I’m not sure they are even now): a funny woman then was a peculiar woman, not an amusing one.

But the story is basically the same: Barbara Parker (Arterton), the reigning Miss Blackpool Belle and a major fan of Lucille Ball, throws in both her job at her father’s rock factory and her butcher fiancé, and legs it to London hoping to become someone. There, she finds an awful attic in Earl’s Court (her flatmate’s always boiling her knickers on a gas ring), a job in the hat department of a smart department store and, most surprising of all, a vaguely seedy theatrical agent in the form of one Brian Debenham (Everett). A stint as an exotic dancer in Soho will, should she want such a thing, soon be hers.

But none of this is enough. Barbara’s restlessness embodies that of the age – if the age could neatly be wrapped in cellophane like a boiled sweet, which it can’t, of course. After an awful lot of auditions, she’s finally seen by the men behind her favourite radio comedy, The Awkward Squad: four posh Cambridge types who fancy themselves as cutting edge. They’re making a new sitcom for a broadcasting company that strongly resembles the BBC, in which a part as a nicely spoken brunette called Cicely is still going – and though I’d better not spell out precisely what happens next, I will say that Barbara is about to become a walking, talking revolution. In summary: eat your heart out, John Osborne.

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The comedy in Funny Woman is broad, to put it mildly: you can see every banana skin from about a mile off. But this seems not much to matter in context. The storytelling is delightfully and unashamedly old-fashioned, its writer interested only in the enjoyment of her audience (which should comprise young and old: I can imagine my small and terrifyingly perspicacious niece, E, liking this series as much as I do).

There is a feeling, watching the cast, that everyone is enjoying themselves: David Threlfall as Barbara’s fond father, George; Rosie Cavaliero as her clucking Aunty Marie; Arsher Ali as Dennis, the buttoned-up producer of the sitcom in which she will (won’t she?) star; Morwenna Banks (acting as well as writing) as Brian’s eternally soothing wife, Patsy.

The clichés – the jokes about tripe, and regional accents, and Barbara’s wraparound lack of sophistication – work mostly in Funny Woman’s favour, bolstering our longing for its heroine to take London and the world by storm. She’s an Everywoman, albeit one with cheekbones so sharp her jilted fiancé could probably use them to slice luncheon meat.

It may be, though, that our investment in Barbara isn’t only down to her likeability; to her endearing habit of saying aloud what other people only think. For if her obstacle-race of a rise seems unlikely in its own time, it strikes me as being utterly out of reach in ours.

Yes, her bedsit is pokey, and people patronise her to the back of beyond. But even when she’s on her uppers, she can just about manage to live. Postwar London is still broken down and peeling, its fuggy cafés and smoky buses still affordable, even to the poor – and perhaps this lends the series a certain piercing tenderness.

While not everyone may long for the golden age of light entertainment (though I’ll admit that I do, sometimes), we all of us ache for a world in which sharp upward trajectories might again be possible, whether in kitten heels or not.

Funny Woman
Sky Max, 9 February, 9pm; available on catch-up

[See also: How The Last of Us turns the apocalypse into mindless entertainment]

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This article appears in the 08 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Silent Sunak