How Will Barbara “Carry On” After 'Funny Woman's Current Mess?

Tom Bateman as Clive Richardson and Gemma Arterton as Sophie Straw doing their couples press tour in Funny Woman Season 1

Tom Bateman as Clive Richardson and Gemma Arterton as Sophie Straw in Funny Woman Season 1

© Potboiler Productions; © Sky UK Limited

Funny Woman’s fourth episode is a dizzying bunch of swings and roundabouts — Sophie and Clive enjoy a honeymoon period, a bubble that can’t help but be burst; the entire Jim and Barbara team produce their funniest and sharpest episode yet, only to see CTV head of light entertainment Ted Sergeant’s face shrivel into a grouchy raisin of disapproval because of one little cuss word; Diane’s new job is promising, but still quite disappointing; and George and Auntie Marie have a splendid time in London.... riiiiight up until Sophie demands to know (on a mic she didn’t know was hot) why Clive is such a lying, cheating c—. Strap in and take your Dramamine, friends; this is a bumpy ride.

The salad days of Sophie and Clive’s romance are genuinely fun and sweet. It’s adorable to see them charm chat show hosts and audiences, to watch them zoom off in Clive’s very sporty red Aston Martin, and to come along on their lovely evening dancing at a groovy club. The songs playing over these moments are Etta James’s “Something’s Got A Hold On Me” and Françoise Hardy’s “Le temps de l’amour,” a reminder that the music supervision team for the series went all out with wall-to-wall bangers. Sophie’s magnificent minidress in these moments is the picture of youthful glamour. It’s a high-collared, sleeveless number made up entirely of sequins in concentric squares of iridescent white and blue, silver, and gold. Imagine if a Rothko painting or a blanket made of granny squares were sparkly.

They’re not just spending every night out on the town, either — Sophie is sleeping over most nights at Clive’s bachelor pad, maintaining the merest fig leaf of plausibility that they aren’t living together. She goes home early each morning for a bath and change of clothes, but it’s only a matter of time before they’re found out, and Ted Sergeant makes it clear the network won’t look kindly on such an arrangement. 

Clare-Hope Ashitey as Diane Lewis and Gemma Arterton as Sophie Straw are ladies who lunch in London in Funny Woman Season 1

Clare-Hope Ashitey as Diane Lewis and Gemma Arterton as Sophie Straw in Funny Woman Season 1

© Potboiler Productions; © Sky UK Limited

Meanwhile, Marj is spreading her wings, too. Her attempt at yoga isn’t all she’d hoped for, but it leads her to a women’s group — “A nice group, they’re interesting – one of them’s a plumber!” — where she learns how to articulate her dissatisfaction with the status quo. Why do men and their preferences get to be the arbiters of women’s lives? As is her wont, Marj cuts right to the chase, remarking that Sophie and Clive not being able to behave as the consenting adults they are is a load of “patri-car-cal bull—!”

Diane is facing down a heap of microaggressive racist bull— of her own at work. She’s now the co-presenter of a popular news magazine at CTV (Tonight with Andrew O’Shea), a promising step in the right direction, but being the first and only Black person in the production takes its toll. She has to bring and apply her own makeup because the range of foundation shades is so inadequate, and she is in a similar BYO situation with wigs. Being obliged to take the time to do all of this and manage not only her own feelings but the discomfort of others is exhausting. At least she and Sophie can hang out more frequently now, which is a boon to them both.

Sophie is making career progress of her own. Her suggestion to incorporate a funny life-to-text moment in an episode about Barbara thinking that Jim is being a bit too well taken care of by his new secretary Hilary, the resulting gag — with her in drag as an electrician wielding a surprisingly threatening step ladder — makes the episode sing. The more this crew works together, the looser and more collaborative they become: Clive and Sophie have excellent chemistry, her go-for-it energy lightens his rigidity, and while Dennis is the boss, he relishes the push and pull with Bill and Tony. The writers have taken to heart Dennis’s directive to push boundaries within the limitations of network standards. Accordingly, the theme of possible adultery sets up the biggest punchline of the episode, which is that Jim’s secretary, Hilary, is a man. A gay man! 

Arsher Ali as Dennis Mahindra is waiting for the shoe to drop in Funny Woman Season 1

Arsher Ali as Dennis Mahindra in Funny Woman Season 1

© Potboiler Productions; © Sky UK Limited

When Clive suggests that Hilary be “a bit light in the loafers,” Bill and Tony roll their eyes, and Dennis reads aloud from the CTV standards book: “Jokes about effeminacy in men are banned.” Bill exasperatedly assures him it won’t be a problem because “we are trying to present a homosexual character who isn’t a [flipping] stereotype! Radio is more cutting-edge than we are! Round the Horne has two blokes speaking Polari!” Hilary’s sexuality isn’t really the issue – Dennis is dubious about the value of using obscure, coded language in a show intended for a wide audience. 

They appeal to Sophie, asking what a young Blackpudlian like Barbara would make of her husband having a gay, male secretary. She hasn’t been judgmental before and isn’t about to start now. She doesn’t know any gay men (she hasn’t quite connected the dots with Bill just yet), but “the show’s about modern love, isn’t it? It’d be boring if we were all the same – to each his own!” Following a roaringly successful afternoon of rehearsal and script revisions, Dennis takes them all out for an evening at The Opposition Club, which is crawling with funny people of varying degrees of notoriety: Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, up-and-coming improvisers Eleanor Bron and John Fortune, and Frankie Howerd

Howerd is holding court and shows his delight in the arrival of the Jim and Barbara crew by playfully scolding them, though what he really wants to know is, “Who’s the dolly eek?” Sophie had been wondering about Polari earlier, and here’s a real, live speaker of the argot! For once, the dolly eek (pretty face) in question isn’t Sophie’s, but Clive’s, though Bill quashes any of Dennis’s flirtatious notions. (Again, in Polari: “Sorry, ducks, he doesn’t play cards – he’s with the bona palone.”)

Rupert Everett and Morwenna Banks as Brian and Patsy Debenham have a mess to clean up in Aisle 3 in Funny Woman Season 1

Rupert Everett and Morwenna Banks as Brian and Patsy Debenham in Funny Woman Season 1

© Potboiler Productions; © Sky UK Limited

Seeing Bron and Fortune in full improvisatory flow is a revelation for Sophie – that’s a real thing people can do? Her irrepressible, spontaneous hilarity could be a robust wellspring of career success? It’s so galvanizing and inspiring that she turns down a role in a Carry On film, enraging Debenham, who argues that she needs to set aside notions of being the working class Eleanor Bron and strike while the iron of her hotness is, well, hot. Sophie does, but not in the way her overbearing agent means. Her dad and Auntie Marie visit from Liverpool to see that week’s taping and sample the high-end delights of London, courtesy of Barbara’s Jim and Barbara success.

It can’t last forever, of course, and the water dashed in Sophie’s face is particularly cold as she learns from a press photographer’s prints that Clive — who just asked Sophie to move in with him the night before! — has been sleeping with the nice costume assistant, Polly. The cobwebs of Sophie’s grieving daze are only blown out by Dennis, who urges her to channel her righteous anger and sadness into that night’s performance. Sophie’s uproarious performance in double-disguise as Charlie, the mustachioed Cockney electrician and namesake of Charlie Chaplin (“I was an uncommonly hairy baby – been shaving since the age of three!”). 

The entire performance is a triumph (even Ted Sergeant smiles approvingly), but there’s precious little time to bask in its afterglow because Sophie and Clive are caught on a still-hot mic arguing about his little dalliance. Clive thought everything was cool because everyone’s sleeping around these days! Dude, nice try. Sophie’s plaintive howl of rage, concluding with a colorful epithet that the FCC will not countenance, is heard by everyone in the studio. Ted’s not smiling anymore. 

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Funny Woman

Barbara Parker heads to London to take on the male-dominated world of comedy by storm.
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Bits & Bobs:

  • Best joke of the episode: 
    • Bill, on Sophie’s inconsolable, loud weeping: She sounded like a wounded animal!
    • Tony: What animal sounds like a fully grown woman sobbing her eyes out?
    • Bill: I don’t know…a panda?
  • Clive, on his mother’s likely nonchalance, if she did meet Sophie tiptoeing out of his house in the morning: “She grew up with the Mitfords, for God’s sake!” Reader, I hooted aloud.
  • As last week’s episode suggested, the awkwardness and tension between Dennis and his wife, Edith, are pretty entrenched. They’re both workaholics and can’t quite sync up when they’re off the clock, at home, or out with friends. Dennis’s obvious crush on Sophie is only growing stronger, while Edith’s notably late arrival home one evening rings all sorts of alarm bells that he seems unable to hear. 

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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