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Television Review of Funny Woman. By Frances Wilson

Arts | By Frances Wilson

Barbara Parker (Gemma Arterton) and Dennis (Arsher Ali) in not-so-funny Funny Woman

Funny Woman (Sky), with Gemma Arterton in the title role, is an adaptation of Nick Hornby’s seventh novel, Funny Girl, set in 1964.

Funny Woman (Sky), with Gemma Arterton in the title role, is an adaptation of Nick Hornby’s seventh novel, Funny Girl, set in 1964.

Hornby’s earlier novels, High Fidelity and About a Boy, were made into two very funny films, and Arterton’s cool screen debut as Kelly, head girl of St Trinian’s, was followed by the part of the Bond girl, Strawberry Fields, in Quantum of Solace.

So, with her brains and his looks, what could possibly go wrong?

Arterton plays Barbara Parker, a beauty queen from Blackpool who pursues fame in London. Her raw comic genius is revealed when, working as a sales assistant in a department store, she tells a customer the fur hat she is trying on looks like roadkill. What is she like! Barbara will say anything!

Changing her name to Sophie Straw, she wins a part in a ‘groundbreaking’ sitcom called Barbara and Jim, in which, playing a ballsy northern Brigid Bardot, Sophie redefines the nation’s attitude to funny women.

So this is a television show about the making of another television show – and the result is the worst television show I’ve ever seen. The problem with Funny Woman is that nothing Sophie Straw says or does is remotely amusing.

The humour that will turn her into a television star is based on burping, pulling duck faces, doing silly walks and making squawking noises while flapping her arms around.

The live television audience for Barbara and Jim might rock with levity as she flicks her feather duster around Jim’s ‘knick-knacks’, but the audience at home in 2023 stare on in disbelief.

Is it that Arterton has no comic timing or that the script (by Morwenna Banks) is so lame that no one, not even Jennifer Aniston, could salvage it?

Or is it that Arterton can’t rise to the challenge of a role this complex, and allows the Blackpool accent and blonde wig to do all the work?

Or could it be that Hornby, who made his name writing warmly about lads and lad culture, has never met a funny woman before and so has no idea how they work?

Sophie Straw is the kind of girl who is late for every important occasion, can’t walk into a room without falling flat on her face and is splashed in the rain by passing cars. Her period starts just as she goes on set, and the studio mic is still on when she calls her cheating boyfriend (also her co-star) a c***.

Most irritatingly, she misunderstands everything that is said to her. Told to read the script at an audition, she settles down to read it to herself (‘No!’ says the director. ‘Out loud!’) ‘Take a deep breath,’ says the producer before she goes onto the set. ‘You can breath out now,’ he suggests as she stands there with balloon cheeks. ‘Break a leg,’ the scriptwriter tells her before her first show. ‘Why?’ she replies. ‘Did you catch his Coriolanus?’ an actor asks.

‘No’, she replies, ‘I had the vaccine.’

To be on the right side of sixties attitudes to homosexuality and race, Funny Woman tries to say something about the clash between the permissive society and Mary Whitehouse, but these limp plot lines go nowhere.

In a nod towards feminism, Barbara’s flatmate joins a women’s group. ‘As women we’ve got to stand up for ourselves,’ she says, ‘and not put up with all their patracarcal bullshit’ (she means patriarchal). In one meeting, the girls use their compact mirrors to become acquainted with their vaginas.

The beacon of hope in all this social turbulence is Sophie Straw – the woman of the future, if only she can make herself heard! Will anyone see beyond the blonde beehive, blunt accent and big boobs? At one point, she goes to a comedy club where Eleanor Bron and John Fortune are improvising. Her dim eyes light up; she can do that!

I mean, how hard can it be to just muck about on stage? She has already stunned the producer by breaking the fourth wall and winking at the camera.

So what exactly is it that Sophie/Barbara has to tell us? Beyond making an impassioned speech about the difference between men and women boiling down to whether you ‘tinkle’ standing up or sitting down, she has never had an insight in her life.

Thank flaming-haired Jesus that the BBC bought the US edition of The Traitors, so we could cleanse our palates with the honest showmanship of this madly entertaining reality show. There is more drama, humour, wisdom and skulduggery in one scene of The Traitors than in all six wince-making hours of so-called Funny Woman.


This story was from March 2023 issue. Subscribe Now