Maxine Peake goes for gags in new film Funny Cow

The Northern club circuit provides the backdrop for Funny Cow, with Maxine Peake taking the brickbats as she doles out the gags. Exclusive location report by Tony Earnshaw.

Maxine Peake in Funny Cow.

Maxine Peake and Paddy Considine are having a row. Quite suddenly she gets up, exits the room, marches down a seemingly endless hallway and slams out of the door to drive off in silent fury.

It’s a dramatic moment that has Adrian Shergold, director of Funny Cow, rhapsodising.

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“Ingmar Bergman! Misery! Depression! Antidepressants!” he quips as the scene is re-set and Peake, playing the titular female comedian of the title, returns to the retro-themed house that is a perfect time capsule of the 1970s.

Maxine Peake and Alun Armstrong in Funny Cow.

Everyone is doing Funny Cow for the love of it. Peake stars as a wannabe stand-up comic on the Northern working men’s club circuit in a role written by ex-Emmerdale star Tony Pitts. He’s also in it along with his pal Considine, who plays Peake’s middle-class bookshop owner lover.

Then there are the cameos: John Bishop as an Elvis impersonator with a dog, Vic Reeves as a ventriloquist, Richard Hawley and Corinne Bailey-Rae as a singing duo called Cream. It is, says producer Kevin Proctor, unlike anything that’s been done before.

“Funny Cow is a scary film because it’s a truthful film. I’m not embarrassed to say that I’ve cried watching it. I’ve cried because it’s so beautiful.”

He likens the mood and atmosphere to everything from Seamus Heaney’s poetry to Norma Rae, the Oscar-winning drama with Sally Field as the downtrodden factory worker who forms a union. And he says it serves as an antidote to the wave of big-budget Hollywood product that is infesting cinemas.

Maxine Peake and Alun Armstrong in Funny Cow.

“We haven’t seen anything like this in such a long time, and we are saturated with familiarity to the point where we are actually condemning ourselves into this vortex of saying, ‘There’s nothing on at the cinema’. Do you know what? There is this huge flux of perfect stories.”

Pitts, says Proctor, is “a poet”. His dialogue is short, sharp, staccato and rich in detail. Even his stage directions - “The customers in the queue looked like damp cigarettes. They had grey, translucent faces” - set Proctor’s pulse racing.

“Tony’s words reach out and punch you in the face,” he explains with passion. “I’ve never read any writing like it before. Tony has a very distinct voice, and we have lost them – the Alan Bleasdales and the Alan Clarkes. But we are definitely not social realism, kitchen sink or ‘it’s grim up north’ at all. We have heightened the reality of it.”

In a brief break from acting Peake and Considine flop down onto a retro sofa set against distinctively curved art deco windows. The whole house, named Whitelodge and resembling a set from A Clockwork Orange, is stuck proudly in the past. And this duo of actors, one in bouffant wig and muttonchops, the other in a garish trouser suit decorated with flowers, are deep into the vibe.

For Considine, making Funny Cow was a quid pro quo arrangement after Pitts appeared in his film Journeyman.

“He’s got a voice, Tony. I saw a lot of him in it when I read it: his personality, insecurities and experiences. What was interesting as well is that he didn’t make a male character the centre of this whole story, he made Funny Cow the centre of it, which I thought was a great choice.”

For Peake, the situation was entirely different: the piece was written specifically with her in mind.

“I remember when Tony wrote it. He was living up Hebden Bridge and I went to see him. We took the dogs for a walk and we sort of sat in the car and he said, ‘I’ve written it’. I was sat in his passenger seat, reading it. He sat and watched me. And I just remember being in floods of tears and saying, ‘It’s beautiful’ but then getting this feeling [of], ‘Good God, how will this get made?’”

Peake used to go to working men’s clubs in the ‘80s with her father. Later, when she was a rising actress living in London, she’d return home to Greenfield on the outskirts of Manchester and call into the local club with him. It is, she says, a rapidly disappearing landscape.

“I have a love/hate relationship with clubs,” she confides. “They were fun but maybe I was looking at them as a bit of a novelty as well. There was a bit of London [to it]: ‘Ooh, look at me going to a working men’s club with me Dad on a Saturday night!’ I think we over-romanticise them sometimes. I do; maybe I have a romantic view of those working men’s clubs and the people that go in them. That world can be quite brutal.”

Peake started her career wanting to be a comedian but says she “didn’t have the guts” and segued into acting. Serious roles such as playing Myra Hindley in See No Evil diverted her from delivering gags. Funny Cow brings her full circle.

“I did one serious job and then I couldn’t get back into comedy after that! I couldn’t [do stand-up]. I’ve got mates who do it and I go and watch them but it fills me with fear. Just watching them makes me feel very anxious.”

One of her inspirations was Marti Caine, the New Faces winner from Sheffield who enjoyed 20 years at the top of British light entertainment before cancer claimed her in 1995, aged just 51. Peake encouraged Pitts to read Caine’s raw memoir A Coward’s Chronicles. The resulting script, however, is defiantly not a biographical portrait, even though its locations – Leeds, Sheffield, Harrogate, Bradford, Dewsbury – represent the trail Caine would have trod.

“Maxine had originally been interested in doing something on Marti Caine,” recalls Pitts. “I didn’t want to do that at all. The idea of that time and my memories of that culture… that interested me. I said I wouldn’t do a biopic but I’d write something about a female comedian. And that’s what I did.

“Funny Cow is a female comedian from the north but it’s not based on anyone. It’s about things that were early planted in me, and men and women.

“I lived at Crookes at the top end of Sheffield. It was Lowry-esque. I remember the men going on buses to the steelworks in the mornings and then on Saturday nights there would be that parade. They loved to get dressed up. I remember me mum and dad. Doors would open and couples would come out dressed up in suits to go out for the night. They had grey, grasping lives and monotonous hard work. That’s very deep in me [and] it’s extraordinary seeing that recreated. We always celebrate cultures when they die and that was sort of the death of that culture.”

The roots of what were to become Funny Cow – the central character is never given a name and is only referred to by that sobriquet – can be traced back to when Peake, Pitts and Considine all worked together on the David Peace TV trilogy Red Riding.

Pitts wrote his story in longhand in one intense two-hour period. Then he set it aside. He describes it as a half mix of childhood memories, what that culture felt like growing up in Sheffield in the ‘60s and ‘70s and the raw-boned, knockabout nature of life. The quasi-autobiographical aspect is, he admits, unavoidable.

“All the characters are just versions of yourself to a lesser or greater degree, with dialogue run through. We don’t have a strict narrative. Somebody asked me where I lived and I think we live in days. I just wrote down the days that would shape her: what it was to be a woman in the ‘70s, and a funny woman. There was nothing that we recognise as pathways to exist. There was no template. You find your people in life, don’t you?

“Writing allows you to order the universe. And I think what it really is is a kind of alchemy: you can turn all your sh*t into gold. My life could have taken a different turn and I could have had all this stuff inside me and nowhere to put it. I try not to brush against reality if I can avoid it.

“My writing is essentially vomiting. I walk round and round until it’s ready to come out. It’s terrifying for my agents because it’s against the orthodoxy of how things are done. I do it, it comes out and there it is. Once it’s there, it’s there.

“The more you bear down on something, it starts to disappear. The closer you get to examining things, they’re not there. If you analyse it, it goes. That’s certainly true. It’s got to be held aloft in some shaft of memory. It’s almost like a message in a bottle from the island of memory to the mainland of now. I can see the little bottles coming in.”

Funny Cow (15) is released on April 20.