In new Sky Max comedy drama series Funny Woman it’s 1964 and girls are expected to be flirty, fabulous and fertile – they are not expected to be funny – but Barbara Parker is different. Based on Nick Hornby’s bestselling 2016 novel ‘Funny Girl’ and adapted by Morwenna Banks, this comic drama follows Barbara (Gemma Arterton), a young woman working in a Blackpool rock factory, who sets off for London without a plan but with a dream. She embarks on a mission to reinvent herself and find her voice in the male-dominated world of the 1960s sitcom. However the road to stardom is paved with banana skins and she has many a pratfall before she achieves her goal.
Gemma tells us about what attracted her to the show and dealing with gender politics in a period setting.
What appealed to you about doing this show in the first place?
I read the book when it first came out and wanted to get the rights to it. Barbara is such a great character, and it was such an iconic time for comedy, for culture, when this whole new wave of comedy started happening. More edgy working-class humour started to come through and for a woman to be in that world was unusual at that time. I could hear her voice in my head and then years later, I got sent the pilot episode by Potboiler and it was amazing. Morwenna’s writing was bang on. It felt quite serendipitous.
Would you say there’s a gap in the market for this type of British storytelling?
The Marvellous Mrs Maisel is a huge hit and we were aware that there’s a similarity there, but this is so British, it’s a very different sense of humour, more Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers. In America, they had The Mary Tyler Moore Show. We didn’t have anyone leading their own show, until the 70s-80 when Victoria Wood and Jennifer Saunders started coming through. Women were accessories in comedy, and British comedy was particularly sexist. The roles that women had to do were the Benny Hill-type or the Carry On sexualized parts. It was quite extraordinary for a woman to make it in the 60s in comedy in the UK.
So tell me about Barbara.
She’s a girl from Blackpool, her mum disappeared when she was young and her dad raised her. They have a very close relationship and that’s where she gets her love of comedy from. He always filmed her on a camera goofing around; they love listening to the wireless shows. She wants more from life than just being a beauty queen, working in a rock shop and becoming a wife. So she goes to London to try and make it as something. She finds herself auditioning for a Comedy Playhouse. From there on it’s the journey of her becoming a sitcom star and finding her voice.
Is she holding onto a Northern sensibility while also being in London?
She struggles with that because she does get sucked into it, especially when she becomes well known and starts hanging out with celebrities and becoming one herself. When you come from a certain place, where your parents and friends are very grounded people, you can’t quite shake that. The theme throughout the whole show is her trying to find how she relates to the showbiz world, being who she is and where she’s from, and having this identity crisis. Her roots are what define her, what makes her special and what makes her stand out. At the time there weren’t many actresses with regional accents and it’s still only recently that regional accents have been accepted in British culture.
How was it getting your accent? Because that’s a specific one.
My best mate is from Blackpool. She went to drama school and has this slightly affected accent but her son has a proper Blackpool accent and I remember speaking to him about it. I worked with an accent coach and he found this recording of these women from Blackpool, chatting about random stuff and I listened to that religiously. We shot it in Liverpool, Manchester and a little bit in Blackpool. They’re so close to each other but the accents vary so much.
What are her relationships like and how do they inform her journey throughout the series?
There’s her best mate Marjorie who she can be herself around. They have this very direct and upfront relationship. Then she has her agent who she doesn’t click with, who’s pretentious and comes from a completely different world to her. And then she has her relationship with the writers, and Clive and Dennis, who don’t get her but they love her and she’s learning a lot from them. When I was doing the show, it was like going into different TV shows on every set because Barbara’s tone is slightly different with different people. It was a real hodgepodge but that’s what happens when you move to a new place; you’re trying to find where you fit in and she’s very chameleon-like.
As an exec producer on this as well, was it a lot easier to put your own spin on the character with what’s in the script?
We had the book, which I read and then respectfully put it away because the story changed and developed with Morwenna. It was so fleshed out on the page and there was a lot of stuff that I wanted to bring to it like physical comedy, which is a passion of mine. I did a lot of work with an amazing guy called Toby Sedgwick, who’s a movement director but also an actor. I did a couple of weeks with him to try and find physical stuff that I could implement into the script. Sometimes you get characters that you have an affinity with and Barbara was one of them. It felt natural to play her and didn’t feel like it was a massive stretch. Barbara was a character that I feel like I’ve always wanted to play and there’s a lot of stuff in there that I got to let out.
She’s a big fan of Lucille Ball so were you watching a lot of I Love Lucy?
I own a box set that has 40 DVDs. I watched the first few seasons of I Love Lucy and it was just such a huge inspiration for me as an actor because I got to see what a master she was at physical comedy. That totally informed the comedy that Barbara wants to do.
The series deals with sexism at the time but also the casual racism involved. How do you think it handles that while not losing that comic tone?
That’s where Morwenna is so deft because in the book, Dennis is not written as non-white but we wanted to make sure that he had a genuine story in relation to the way he experiences racism. There’s a great storyline where they have to cast an Indian actor in the sitcom and they want to get a genuine Indian actor to play it but they get Spike Milligan to don brown face which happened in real life. We see how Dennis has to handle and reckon with it. Then we have the character of Diane, who is inspired by authentic experiences of working in British television in the 1960’s. We wanted it to feel genuine.
You’re dealing with a lot of the gender politics in a period setting but a lot still feel quite contemporary. Was that quite interesting for you?
We’ve all had our experiences. Morwenna, coming up through comedy, had so many people say to her you can’t do this and that. It’s way better than it was but there’s still an undercurrent because old school people still work in the industry. Hopefully people will still be able to relate since it’s not just this industry that’s affected. One of the things that Barbara struggles with is people judging her physically rather than what she can do and that happens a lot with women in workspaces.
How did you enjoy the meta narrative going on, switching between Barbara and the character she plays in the sitcom?
It was so meta at times! There were times when we didn’t know, especially with Tom Bateman. He’s very much like Clive and I’m quite like Barbara so there were times where we were asking Olly [director] questions that we could have asked in the sitcom. It was very weird. Then doing the show in the show, which was so cool, in front of a live audience and the nerves. Leo Bill and Matthew Beard, who play the writers, were becoming so obsessed with the writing of the show themselves. It was quite funny.
Did you ever diverge much from the script?
There is a certain rhythm that is written, especially in this style of comedy that you have to honour. We did stick to the script but there were moments where we improvised bits and bobs. Little moments where Morwenna was very up for collaborative work. She was
How was Olly Parker as a director?
I did my first ever acting job with Olly, so I felt in safe hands with him. He knows me and he’s very encouraging. He’s a real actors’ director. He used to be an actor himself, so his approach always comes from an actor’s perspective. He’s also got an eye for comedy which makes him a natural comedy director.
How was balancing producing and acting?
While we were in pre-production, me and my producing partners would be all over the creative decisions like casting and the scripts. Then when it came to shooting, there was no way I could think about the job at hand so I stepped back and let everyone else take the reins. I love the fact that all of the casting choices and the creative choices in terms of who shoots it, what production designer we had and costume designer, etc, we had a say over that. Everything was so carefully done that it was a satisfying process.
Who do you think will love this series?
It is for everyone. It’s fun, moving, cutting edge and surprising.
Funny Woman premieres Wednesday 9 February at 9.00pm on Sky Max.