Northern Soul

Adrian Shergold is a long-established television and film director, whose work includes Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman, Low Winter Sun and He Kills Coppers. His latest film is Funny Cow, written by Tony Pitts. It stars Maxine Peake as a would-be stand-up comedian – known only as “Funny Cow” – who works the stand-up circuit in 1970s Britain.

ASFF: What attracted you to Tony Pitts’ script for Funny Cow?
AS: What I loved about the film…you seduce the audience, who think they’re going to watch one thing, and suddenly they’re dropped on the floor and picked up by the throat. That was part of the joy of it. It was part of his writing.

ASFF: Is Maxine’s character based on anyone real?
AS: It is a fictional character. I think when Maxine was at RADA, she had to pick out a character to talk about – one of those drama school things. And she talked about Marti Caine. So Marti Caine was a woman at that time who was trying to do comedy in a man’s world. So there was an element of that – a woman trying to be a comedian, working in a man’s world, which is full of innuendos, racist jokes and Christ knows what. So that’s where it started from. Tony’s own neuroses and his own struggles dealing with macho men and how they behave came very much part of the story.

ASFF: The film has a very episodic structure. Was that from the script
It was a very organic script. Strangely, when Tony writes, he writes with no real structure. So he writes a tirade of thoughts and processes which don’t actually necessarily fit together. I remember at a party saying to Tony, “Why does this scene follow scene five?” And he said: “I’ve no idea! That’s up to you!” So I wasn’t quite sure if it was going to follow the way it was scripted or whether we’d change it in the edit, so it was a very organic process to shooting it as well.

ASFF: The film has the feel of an Alan Clarke or Mike Leigh movie. Was that deliberate?
AS: Well, one of my big heroes is Alan Clarke. I met him and spoke to him when he was around, when I was first starting out as a director, so I had a great deal of respect for him and how he works. And I also worked with Mike Leigh. They were my mentors in a way, how you approach things – you don’t just look for the easy route, you look for the hard route. You look for the emotional core of something and try and make that work.

ASFF: The film is deliberately un-PC, reflecting 1970s Britain. Were you told to tone this back?
We didn’t tone it back. It was about people smoking and drinking and it was about people in that time and it was important that that was part of our storytelling process.

Funny Cow opens in cinemas from 20 April. For more details, click here.

James Mottram

1. Maxine Peak in Funny Cow.