'Funny Woman's Series Premiere: Introducing a Dogged Dreamer

Gemma Arterton as Barbara Parker and Richard Ridings as the Mayor crowing her Miss Blackpool in 'Funny Woman's Series Premiere

Gemma Arterton as Barbara Parker and Richard Ridings as the Mayor crowing her Miss Blackpool in 'Funny Woman's Series Premiere

© Potboiler Productions; © Sky UK Limited

Welcome to Funny Woman, a show that asks, what if The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but uniquely British? Yes, please! The six-part adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel Funny Girl (retitled for previously existing stage and screen IP reasons) aired in the UK last year. It is a bracing gust of fresh air thanks to Gemma Arterton’s star turn as Barbara Parker (stage name: Sophie Straw), cracklingly zingy dialogue and character development by Morwenna Banks, a first-rate supporting cast, and an implacable insistence on the value and brilliance of people traditionally undervalued in London’s performing arts scene of 1964 (women, anyone speaking non-RP English/educated outside of Oxbridge, queer people, people of color – you get the gist). 

As first episodes must, Episode One furnishes exposition by the boatload, introducing us to Barbara and nearly everyone in her world, establishing her comedic genius and highlighting what an iron will she needs to make it in an industry at best indifferent to and incurious about her. Barbara Parker (early 20s, possessed of abundant, casually sexy good looks) knows she’s hot but would also like people to listen to her. So demanding! That sounds an awful lot like getting ideas above her station! After winning the 1964 Blackpool Belle competition, Barbara seeks her fortune in swinging London, where she quickly gets a job selling hats in a swanky department store. 

The family she’s left behind is a small one – just her doting, encouraging dad, George (David Threlfall), and his sister, Marie (Rosie Cavaliero), a socially anxious, judgmental worry-wort who is scandalized by everything Barbara does other than drawing breath. It’s a bad dynamic and a vicious cycle: Marie insists on cooking and cleaning so the Parker home lives up to her stringent standards, which makes it possible for George to be easy-breezy to the point of passivity, which Marie deeply resents in turn. Marie’s “Oh, whatever will the neighbors think?”-style class anxiety erupts in a reminder to George that Barbara is now the age that her mother Gloria was when she left their family, and in her appalled comment that had Barbara just stayed home like she was supposed to, “she could’ve been betrothed to the best-looking butcher in Blackpool!” 

Gemma Arterton as Barbara Parker and Alexa Davies as Marj Harrison eat lunch together at work in 'Funny Woman's series premiere

Gemma Arterton as Barbara Parker and Alexa Davies as Marj Harrison eat lunch together at work in 'Funny Woman's series premiere

© Potboiler Productions; © Sky UK Limited

Barbara quickly finds affordable lodgings and friendship with Marj (Alexa Davies), another young coworker at Lewis Peters. Marj is a no-nonsense and sharp observer of their workplace, noting that Barbara (hats) and she (shoes) are at the bottom of the league table of departments, while ladies’ fashion, couture, and perfume are at the top.

Thanks to Marge’s quick thinking and exchange of a gorgeous gown for diet pills from her dad (“I usually flush ‘em down the lav, but occasionally they come in handy”), Barbara has an ensemble worthy of a night out at the theatre with a potential gentleman friend. Unfortunately, the inaptly named Valentine (Robert Portal) is a revolting lech who expects sex in exchange for…subjecting her to an evening of classist, sexist behavior, I guess? Is she meant to thank him for the privilege of assuming she wouldn’t mind being assaulted in the ladies’ room? Barbara is saved at the last minute by Sheila (Django Chan-Reeves) from the coat check, who urges her to “kick him in the cock!” Barbara is trudging home through the rain in her ruined, job-killing dress when the Debenhams, a couple who’d seemed to be coming onto her at the theatre, catch up with her to offer cab fare home and a business card. Mr. Debenham (Rupert Everett, in a shameful fat suit and crooked fake teeth – why is this happening?) is a theatrical agent, not a creeper (though he is creepy).

Funny Woman isn’t subtle in its presentation and critiques of classism and sexism, but this is not Mad Men, and it’s not kitchen sink drama; it’s a social fantasia more in line with Call The Midwife and 2022’s Ridley Road. No scene drives this home more clearly than a morning-after exchange between Barbara and Marj. When Maj tells Barbara that looking like she does (in the nonsensical social math of conservatives everywhere, being gorgeous = not virginal = trampy = asking for it), she should know to expect men to be a little rapey. Barbara immediately shuts down that line of argument, saying, “It’s one thing to go off with a fella. It’s quite another when men act as if it’s theirs for the taking.” 

Gemma Arterton as Barbara Parker, dolled up for a night on the town in 'Funny Woman's series premiere

Gemma Arterton as Barbara Parker dolled up for a night on the town in 'Funny Woman's series premiere

© Potboiler Productions; © Sky UK Limited

Despite several red flags, Barbara visits Mr. Debenham’s office and signs with him. He assumes she knows there’s no chance she’ll be cast in speaking roles since she’s, y’know, from the North, but she immediately shoots down any audition that would necessitate donning a bikini. He insists she take a stage name, arguing that Sophie Straw is modern and fresh rather than old-timey and provincial. As a fellow Sophie, I wholeheartedly welcome her to our ranks, but as a niece and cousin to two Barbaras, I object to the rationale. 

The auditions Mr. Debenham — who relies on his wife Patsy’s (Morwenna Banks) superior administrative skills in an exaggeration of how George relies on Marie’s homemaking expertise — sends Barbara’s way are weirdly close to bikini auditions. The ditzy blonde that the male protagonist wants to seduce because his wife is such a shrew? A housewife selling detergent ideal “for when things get really filthy”? Good grief. She’d rather clean toilets than audition for the burlesque review Mr. Debenham suggests and determinedly blags her way into an audition for a play.

This is not just any play, though – it’s a comedy, to be directed by Dennis Mahindra (Arsher Ali). At first, Barbara (ok, Sophie) is too focused on actually doing the audition that it takes her a moment to realize this is a project with the Dennis Mahindra, who directs one of her favorite radio shows. After expecting “a load of tweedy posh lads with pipes” (to be fair, Dennis is a tweedy, pipe-smoking posh lad), she’s delighted to find herself auditioning to co-star with Clive Richardson (Tom Bateman) in a piece co-written by Bill Gardener (Matthew Beard) and Tony Holmes (Bill Leo). She loves their work on Awkward Squad and charms them all with her depth of knowledge and exuberant re-creation of the show’s credits. It’s a blessed relief to finally be in a room full of men who appreciate her lightning-quick wit and instinctive stage presence. (One notable exception is Clive, who doesn’t get it and mouths “what the f—” at Dennis.) It seems like she might just have this part in the bag when the dreaded casting director, Beryl, returns and bursts everyone’s hopeful bubbles. Beryl announces that Sophie is there on false pretenses and she’d never dream of casting “someone like her.” The lads hate this, but let it happen. Sophie leaves, burning with shame and frustration, and the next thing we know, she’s on stage at the Whiskey Cat Club, looking gorgeous and miserable in white marabou and rhinestones. Buck up, kiddo, we know you’ve got this.

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Funny Woman

Barbara Parker heads to London to take on the male-dominated world of comedy by storm.
Funny Woman: show-poster2x3

Bits & Bobs:

  • Left unsaid but crystal clear nonetheless: Barbara is so much funnier than any male character we’ve met so far, and deeply tenacious. She gets knocked down, but as God is her witness, she’ll get up again.
  • And she’ll look great doing it – the costume design so far is a visual feast. My two favorites are Barbara’s first audition dress and the borrowed red satin gown. Her audition dress is a curve-hugging, sleeveless knee-length affair in royal blue, featuring a bateau neck with wide white piping and a streamlined bow at the right side of the neck. The borrowed gown is a luscious, glowing cherry red, which is definitely Barbara’s color. She wears a cardigan in that shade several times, and it’s her go-to lipstick look, too. It’s bold rather than garish and, unfortunately, may be inadvertently contributing to the misapprehension that she’s trashy.
  • There are two instances where Barbara asks Marj about dating and sex, and Marj deflects both without answering. Inexperience? Queerness? I’m fascinated to see how this plays out over the next five episodes. 
  • The funniest exchange of the episode (and there are quite a few) goes to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment between Barbara/Sophie and writer Bill regarding Clive: 
    Bill: Did you catch [Clive’s] Coriolanus?
    Sophie: No, I had the vaccine!

Sophie's Selfie

Sophie has been happily steeping in the potent brew of British TV since her parents let her stay up late on a Thursday watching the Jeremy Brett adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. She loves mysteries, espionage thrillers, documentaries, and costume dramas, and if you're not careful, she might talk your ear off about the Plantagenets. Sorry about that in advance! 

You can find Sophie on all the platforms as @sophiebiblio and keep an eye on her bylines from all over the internet via her handy portfolio.

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