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Funny Cow review: Maxine Peake is wonderful as a female comedian

Funny Cow review: Maxine Peake is wonderful as a female comedian
02 May
12:24

Maxine Peake singingIMAGE VIEW PHOTOGRAPHY

Maxine Peake plays her role beautifully

“I can’t do what everybody else does,” she declares, “I can’t be a civilian, I’ve got no backbone. I’ve got a funny bone instead.”

With Paddy Considine playing her lover, Alun Armstrong playing the old-school comic who mentors and manages her, and ex-Pulp guitarist Richard Hawley providing the music as well as appearing with Corinne Bailey Rae as a mixed race double act called Coffee And Cream, it’s a serious production about funny people and tragic lives.

Add Liverpudlian comic John Bishop playing an Elvis impersonator, Jim Moir (aka Vic Reeves) as a ventriloquist and a straight acting role for Kevin Rowland of Dexy’s Midnight Runners and it’s quite a cast.

Working in clubland was tough, even more so if you were a woman.

The punters were heading back and forth to the bar with trays of drinks.

If one was dropped, with broken glass and beer everywhere, a comedian needed to know how to turn it into a joke.

A turn could be in the middle of a complicated joke or a heartfelt ballad but if the pies arrived they didn’t stand a chance.

Playwright Alan Plater recalled that if Hull club audiences didn’t take to an act, they wouldn’t heckle.

They would simply and devastatingly ignore them.

A few funny women held their own in this unforgiving arena: Hylda Baker of Nearest And Dearest fame; Lynne Perrie, sister of The Comedians’ star Duggie Brown, who would go on to become Ivy Tilsley in Coronation Street; Sheffield- born Ricki Lee, whose superb double act with her husband Ronnie Dukes is now almost forgotten; and most notable of all, the great Marti Caine.

Picture of Marti CaineITV/REX/ SHUTTERSTOCK

The film Funny Cow was loosely based around Marti Caine

In looks and on-stage manner, Peake’s character most closely resembles Caine, who died in 1995.

Tall and glamorous, her looks belied her sometimes bawdy material and her ruthless way with hecklers.

Born Lynne Shepherd in Sheffield in 1945, Caine modelled as a teenager and won beauty contests but an unexpected pregnancy meant she married at 17 and gave up dreams of showbusiness.

However, when she was 19, Caine’s mother died and Marti needed money for the funeral.

She auditioned at a local club and began doing gigs as a singer.

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The transition into comedy came naturally, as she began to put jokes into her patter between the songs, and her stage name came from her stick-thin physique, being a pun on tomato cane.

“I call myself a stand-up comic who likes to sing,” she said in 1979.

“If I had anything to offer as a singer, I wouldn’t have been a comic in the first place.”

Her TV break came in 1975 when she won the final of talent show New Faces.

Before that, she’d spent 10 years honing her technique in northern clubs, particularly with regard to hecklers.

“Someone once shouted ‘Gerremoff!’, to which I replied, ‘If your wallet is as big as your mouth, you’re on’,” she recalled.

Maxine Peake on setIMAGEVIEWPHOTOGRAPHY

Funny Cow is about a female comedian making her way in the northern clubs of the 1970s

“I didn’t have to think about that one. The adrenalin did it.”

Her slow rise to stardom meant that she never took fame for granted or became a diva.

In TV studios, she was as likely to be nattering with the camera crew over a cup of tea as hob-nobbing with her guest stars.

“She was a very down-to-earth lady,” says her BBC producer, Stanley Appel.

But being famous helped bring Caine’s first marriage, to Malcolm Stringer, to an end in 1979.

“He never liked the idea of me being the breadwinner,” she told reporters at the time, adding “It’s a terrible role for a man to play.”

She found happiness again with drama director Kenneth Ives, whom she married in 1984.

From 1984 to 1986, she starred in her own sitcom, Hilary, and when New Faces was revived in 1986, Caine was the perfect choice to host it.

However, in September 1988, she was told by doctors that she had lymphatic cancer and had maybe five years to live.

Caine met it head on by going public early the following year and talking about her treatment and her fears, then getting back to work.

An ITV Christmas special in 1989 with Joan Rivers guesting was followed by memoirs and a BBC game show called Joker In The Pack.

Caine lived to become a grandmother but died in November 1995, a fortnight before she was to receive an honorary doctorate from Sheffield Hallam University where she is commemorated by a sculpture.

Picture of Marti Caine on stageITV/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

Marti Caine passed away in 1995 after being told she had cancer 7 years previously

The series of New Faces that Caine won was rich in talent, with Lenny Henry and a very different sort of northern funnywoman, Victoria Wood, being other contenders.

Wood’s brief early club experience would prove more of a source of material than a baptism of fire.

Hylda Baker, admired greatly by Wood, was another wonderful female northern comedian and although her career extended into the club era she was first and foremost a relic of the variety Born in the Farnworth district of Bolton in 1905, Baker was a child prodigy and toured as a singer and impressionist from the age of 10.

She was a regular on radio from the 1930s and developed the act that made her famous, playing a busybody given to malapropisms like, “I can say that without fear of contraception” as she relayed gossip to mute stooge Cynthia.

Hylda Baker holding two monkeysGETTY

Hylda Baker, admired greatly by Wood, was another wonderful female northern comedian

Baker was 4ft 11in and the gormless Cynthia was played by a series of tall men, including a young Matthew Kelly.

In the 1960s, she moved into television situation comedy with Nearest And Dearest, in which she played Nellie Pledge, co-owner with brother Eli of a pickle factory. The show was a hit but was complicated by the profound mutual loathing that sprang up between Baker and co-star Jimmy Jewel.

Relations became so strained that the pair would no longer speak to each other directly or even look at each other, which required diplomacy and clever camera angles from the show’s director.

In later life, Baker developed Alzheimer’s disease and died in a psychiatric hospital in Epsom in 1986.

The female northern comedians of today like Sarah Millican might seem a world away from Marti Caine, with her songs and sequins, or the caricatures of Hylda Baker but they owe these pioneering ladies, who braved a very male world, a great deal.

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