Gemma Arterton plays a working-class hero who goes from Lancashire to London to break into the world of 1960s showbiz in this fabulous new Sky Max series
By Chris Miller, Feature Writer
If you enjoyed Nick Hornby’s bestselling novel Funny Girl and thought it would work really well as a TV series, then we’ve got good news for you…
The story of Barbara Parker, a working-class beauty queen from Blackpool trying to make it big in the comedy world, is being brought to your telly screens by Sky Max this month. With a terrific cast and some serious talent behind the camera too, the series – retitled Funny Woman – promises laughs, drama, super-stylish period sets and costumes and an eye-opening insight into how the TV industry, and society more widely, worked in the 1960s.
What’s the story?
It’s 1964, and Barbara (Gemma Arterton, Their Finest) has been crowned Miss Blackpool Belle – but she feels trapped in her life in the seaside town, working at the rock factory and unenthusiastically engaged to be married. Convinced she can make it as a star in the fledgling world of TV comedy, she heads for London. Once there, she finds more barriers to success than she expected – but that just makes her more determined to succeed.
Arterton, who is also the executive producer, says Barbara’s story is about achieving fame and fortune while not losing sight of who she is. “Her roots are what define her, what make her special and what make her stand out,” she says. “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.”
Working-class, northern and female, Barbara has plenty to overcome if she’s to break into the established order that runs the industry – and the country itself. “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,” Arterton says. “Hopefully people will be able to relate since it’s not just this industry that’s affected.”
Who else is in it?
Rupert Everett, who starred with Arterton in her first film St Trinian’s, plays Brian Debenham, a theatrical agent who’s impressed enough with Barbara to take her on as a client. The handsome star of My Best Friend’s Wedding and An Ideal Husband is almost unrecognisable under heavy make-up, a bald cap and bulky body prosthetics. While Brian does his best to start and shape Barbara’s career, it’s clear he sees her as a route to his own success.
Brian’s wife Patsy is played by Morwenna Banks, who’s also the show’s writer; as well as an established comic actor, Banks has penned brilliant scripts for suffragette sitcom Up The Women, social work comedy Damned and more. David Threlfall, best known as Frank Gallagher in Shameless, is Barbara’s dad George, who cultivates her love of comedy and encourages her to follow her dreams.
Tom Bateman (Behind Her Eyes) is Barbara’s sitcom co-star Clive Richardson, with Leo Bill (Taboo) and Matthew Beard (Vienna Blood) as the writers. Arsher Ali (Avenue 5) plays the sitcom’s producer Dennis Mahindra, while Claire-Hope Ashitey (Doctor Foster) is stylish journalist Diane, a new friend for Barbara who introduces her to the delights of Swinging London.
Alexa Davies (Dead Pixels) is Barbara’s best friend Marj, while Sex Education’s Alistair Petrie is no-nonsense TV boss Ted Sargeant – a character based on a real-life BBC bigwig called Tom Sloan, a hugely influential figure in the history of comedy who could make or break people’s careers.
How much was Nick Hornby involved?
Not at all. “I love Morwenna. I told her right from the beginning, anything you want to do is fine by me,” the novelist says. “I could tell that Morwenna loved the characters as much as I did, and because she’s worked so much in TV, she’s got this whole other layer of knowing what’s going on technically when you’re making a TV show.”
One of the inspirations for the story, Hornby says, was “a lovely drama about the creation of Coronation Street. It was incredibly moving because these are people who never got a chance to be anything in theatre or film because they’re so regional. Barbara comes at a time when Received Pronunciation was everywhere on the BBC and anyone with a regional accent is likely to stick out. So she was fighting that battle as well as the battle to be funny.”
Fortunately things have changed a bit since those days, and over the years there have been numerous people who’ve trodden the same path as Barbara from Blackpool to stardom…
When is Sky Max’s Funny Woman on TV?
Funny Woman starts on Thursday 9 February at 9pm on Sky Max HD (CH 111). Episodes will also be available in Catch Up > Channels > Sky Max.
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