'It's a harsh, brutal world that had faded glamour': Maxine Peake revives the world of 1970s stand-up in Sheffield writer's new film

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Maxine Peake is a proud Lancastrian but Funny Cow, the title role of her new movie, a stand-up comic from the Seventies, tells her audience she’s from Rotherham.

That’s because it is a part written especially for her 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 Channel 4's Red Riding Trilogy and hatched the idea.

Now showing: Funny Cow

Now showing: Funny Cow

“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 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 performances at the clubs.

Though it’s not her story, the memory of Sheffield’s own Marti Caine springs to mind, confirmed by Maxine Peake: “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.”

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.

Maxine Peake, Tony Pitts and Richard Hawley at the Funny Girl gala screening in Sheffield.

Maxine Peake, Tony Pitts and Richard Hawley at the Funny Girl gala screening in Sheffield.

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 in Wisewood, although the film actually used locations in West Yorkshire and Liverpool. Another Sheffield ingredient is musician 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 B52s 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 cast members plus celebrity guests who included Johnny Marr and Peaky Blinders’ Sophie Rundle.

Tony Pitts revealed he has just finished writing his next film, 'a disco musical' and continues to be a busy actor, having just appeared in the movie Journeyman with its writer, director and star Paddy Considine, who's also in Funny Cow. “I've just done two years in Budapest on the Sky period drama Jamestown, and I’m a regular on Peaky Blinders and Line of Duty."

Funny Cow is in cinemas from today, April 20.