Funny Woman, review: Gemma Arterton dazzles but this is a Mediocre Mrs Maisel

Gemma Arterton as Barbara Parker in Funny Woman - Sky UK/Ben Blackhall
Gemma Arterton as Barbara Parker in Funny Woman - Sky UK/Ben Blackhall

Technically, Funny Woman (Sky Max) is a comedy-drama starring Gemma Arterton. Really, it’s a Gemma Arterton performance with a comedy-drama attached. She is luminous in it, and the show is so dependent on her talents that it’s essentially a one-woman vehicle.

It is based on a novel, Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby, who had his heyday in the 1990s with Fever Pitch and High Fidelity. Funny Girl is more recent and far lesser-known, so the story will be new to most people. Arterton plays a 1960s beauty queen from Blackpool who works (where else?) in a factory making sticks of rock. But she has dreams of being an actress and moves to Swinging London, where she takes the name Sophie Straw and begins to make her way in showbusiness.

Barbara is gorgeous – “a cross between Brigitte Bardot and the girl next door”, as one admiring reviewer puts it – but she’s more than a ditsy blonde. She’s funny. She idolises Lucille Ball and wants to be a British version, goofing and pratfalling her way through comedy sketches. She joins a troupe of chin-stroking Cambridge Footlights types who are making a television sitcom. The TV boss to whom they’re pitching is sceptical: “In my vast experience, good looks and comic ability rarely go hand in hand. The girl is in the show to play the voice of reason, not to play the fool.” But Barbara wins him round, and the show becomes a hit. From there, we follow the trajectory of Barbara’s career and her love life.

Barbara has to battle both the sexist attitudes of the day (“I don’t want everything to be about my knockers!”) and prejudice against her working-class roots. But the script, adapted by Morwenna Banks, makes plenty of jokes of its own about the latter. It repeatedly attempts to wring laughs out of Barbara being an unsophisticated Northerner. She refers to “eau de toilet” instead of eau de toilette. “Are you the Oxfam Mafia?” she asks, when she means Oxbridge. “I just wanted to say, ‘break a leg',” someone says, as Barbara is about to go onstage. “Why?” she squeaks in alarm. Arterton manages to make all of this seem endearing.

More of a problem are the bits in which Barbara, as opposed to Arterton, is supposed to be funny. When she’s auditioning or performing, it’s horribly unfunny material. And deconstructing comedy – showing us how the writers devise and refine every line – takes all of the laughs out of it.

Barbara falls for her devilishly handsome co-star, Clive (Tom Bateman), but will she find true love with the tweedy producer, Dennis (Arsher Ali)? The soapy stuff is more involving than the superficial attempts to address issues such as racism and homosexuality. Occasionally, it is smart about class: when Barbara’s forward-thinking friend says she dislikes Carry On films because the women are stereotyped, Barbara replies: “Oh. Well, me and my dad like them because they’re not just all posh people with fancy jobs talking like her off Brief Encounter.”

But, this being a 2023 show, all of the characters we’re meant to root for are tremendously modern and right-on, despite living in 1960s Britain. Dennis says he would like his sitcom to “talk about poverty, privilege, sexual revolution, gender inequality”. The villain of the piece – that TV boss again – is opposed to the idea of bringing an Indian actor into the cast to play an Indian character, saying: “Spike Milligan does a hilarious turn as a Pakistani.”

It’s an idealised world, in which mentions of real-life figures – Frankie Howerd, Mary Whitehouse – serve as a link to what was actually going on at the time. It falls to the soundtrack to do a lot of the work in creating the period feel. And speaking of periods: this is the first glossy costume drama I can remember in which a female character realises that she’s started bleeding all over her cream trousers just as she’s about to go out in public. It’s a moment that makes Barbara seem real.

Rupert Everett appears beneath layers of latex make-up and a fat suit, playing a gone-to-seed agent called Brian Debenham. But he’s wasted, popping up for five minutes per episode. Everett played a similar sort of character in Channel 4’s Adult Material; he is a good actor, and deserves grander roles than this. David Threlfall does nice work as Barbara’s supportive dad.

The Amazon Prime Video series The Marvelous Mrs Maisel trod similar ground: a woman being funny! In the olden days! But that show had a much snappier script. The charm of Funny Woman rests on Arterton, who makes the six episodes worth watching.

Funny Woman is available to stream now on NOW and Sky Go