Funny Cow, the title role of the stand-up comic from the Seventies played by Maxine Peake in her new movie, refers in her act to the fact she’s from Rotherham.
The actress, of course, is a proud Lancastrian but the character was created by Sheffield actor-writer Tony Pitts.
It has taken 10 years for the film to come to fruition since the pair met on the set of the Red Riding Trilogy when Pitts suggested writing a part especially for her.
“I said to Tony I have always been fascinated by that working men’s club world and the idea of a woman there and following her trajectory,” says Peake. “It’s the world Tony and I grew up in at opposite ends of the Pennines. It’s a harsh, brutal world that also had a bit of faded glamour about it.”
Pitts, who grew up in Crookes, remembers how in the “grim and grey” Sheffield of the Seventies people would work all week at hard physical labour and then get dressed up on a Saturday night to go and see live performance at the clubs.
Though it’s not her story, the memory springs to mind of Sheffield’s own Marti Caine, who emerged from the club circuit to win New Faces and reach the top of British light entertainment before dying of cancer in 1995 aged just 51, Maxine Peake confirms : “My inspiration came from Marti Caine because she was an extraordinary woman and because she came from Sheffield but Funny Cow’s act and performance style is very different.” She says Caine’s memoir A Coward’s Chronicles, made a big impression.
I grew up assuming writers wrote what they wanted to write
For his part, Pitts has said: “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.”
It is an uncompromising film with brutal scenes of domestic violence amid the laughs. Pitts said it took him a long time to find a producer who wouldn’t insist on taking out some of the un-PC 1970s elements or demand a happy ending.
The writer admits that compromise is not something that comes easily to him. “I can’t work on TV because I am not collaborative, I am afraid. I know what I want to say. I grew up assuming that writers wrote what they wanted to write, painters what they wanted to paint, musicians likewise and it came as a bit of a shock when I realised it was done by committee. It’s not through any sense of nobility, it’s not posturing. People have said it’s because you want all the power but it’s because I want the responsibility, if it’s rubbish, blame me.”
Tony Pitts’ acting career began as a teenager when he was cast by director Ken Loach in Barry Hines’s Looks and Smiles, and then had 10 years on Emmerdale followed by a steady career. He says he is busier than ever. “I have just done two years in Budapest on Jamestown (the Sky period drama), I’m a regular on Peaky Blinders and Line of Duty and I’ve just done the Journeyman movie with Paddy Considine” (who’s also in Funny Cow).
At the same time he has always been writing, he says, and reveals he has just finished writing his next film, “a disco musical”
He has found radio has offered him the freedom he desires. “Radio wise I have been really lucky, I won the Sony Gold – every radio piece I have written I have won awards for – so I’ve had a home at Radio 4 for five or six years.”
And now independent film. Funny Cow (we never learn her real name) gets her break at Crookes Social Club – where we see the late Bobby Knutt as concert secretary – and another scene is supposedly at Dial House. The film actually used locations in West Yorkshire and Liverpool rather than Sheffield, although not for the want of trying but council red tape proved insurmountable, apparently.
Another Sheffield ingredient is Richard Hawley who composed the soundtrack and has a cameo in the film (as does his son, Danny).
The two Sheffielders are presumably old friends? “It’s a weird one, Richard and I, we only go back about four or five years but it’s one of those things,” explained Tony. ”It turns out when I was at the Limit at the B52 gig he was right behind me. It was a long time later we found each other because we are artists from the same background. I fled the city and he stayed.”
Having previously collaborated on a couple of radio plays the writer approached the musician with the outline of the film. It was a Friday and by the Sunday, marvelled Pitts, Hawley called him up and sang down the phone what was to become the theme song, Funny Cow and his involvement continued throughout the editing stage.
Both Sheffielders attended a gala screening last week in their home city at the Showroom, along with Maxine Peake, singer Corinne Bailey Rae who also appears in the film and other members of cast plus celebrity guests who included musician Johnny Marr and actors Sophie Rundle (Peaky Blinders) and Max Beesley (Homeland, Ordinary Lies). Both appear with Tony Pitts in Jamestown.
Funny Cow has gone on to earn largely enthusiastic reviews from the national media with the Independent dubbing it “one of the best British features of the year so far”.