In Funny Cow, Peake gives a blistering performance as a stand-up comedienne on the working men’s club circuit that was a feature of northern English life in the ’70s. We’re talking about a time when nobody had coined the term “alternative comedy”, when a comic would share a bill with a crooner, a local band, maybe a stripper.
It was a part written specifically for her by fellow actor Tony Pitts, who once ran comedy clubs himself. He also plays the husband who tells Funny Cow ‚Äď as she is called throughout the film ‚Äď that if she tries out for a comedy slot, he’ll punch her in the face. But she does. And he does.
Funny Cow doesn’t expect anything else of marriage; her dad did the same thing. Peake says she has seen women putting up with that often enough in life. “I see it in friends who constantly go for these relationships, it’s what you think you deserve. If you’re hit a lot as a child, you think that’s your lot.”
What is striking about her Funny Cow is that she defies these men with humour and sheer belligerence. “Are you angry?” she’ll say demurely even as a fist comes at her. “You seem angry.”
Peake is what you might call a regional treasure. She still speaks with a Lancastrian accent as thick as porridge, despite her three years at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Since then she has played all sorts: rough in the television series Shame and smart in Silk, a ground-breaking female Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester and the Moors murderer Myra Hindley on television.
In real life, she keeps faith with the communist grandfather who helped bring her up. Her fellow northerners love it when she lets fly, as she often does, with some undiluted invective against the Tories.
At one point in Funny Cow, her character takes up with a depressive bookshop-owner called Angus (Paddy Considine) who takes her to the theatre and plays her classical music in the hope of improving her. “I’m not Eliza Doolittle!” she explodes at one point. Has Peake been patronised? “Oh God yes, all the time!” she exclaims. “I’m a woman, I’m northern, I’m working-class, you know what I mean? I’d go into auditions sometimes and have people saying, ‘So, did you understand the script?’ That sort of thing. Or they’d say, ‘So where did Victoria Wood find you ‚Äď was it street casting?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, I went to RADA.’ And their jaws would drop.”
The character of Funny Cow was inspired by Sheffield’s Marti Caine, a sharp-witted comedienne who won television’s talent quest New Faces in 1975. “It’s generational, but still a bit of a shame, that people now haven’t heard of her,” says Peake. “She ended up being one of Britain’s biggest stars, really. I remember reading her autobiography. She was pretty fearless ‚Äď she was glamorous yet funny and quite tomboyish too ‚Äď and it struck a chord.”
Like Caine, Funny Cow is very much of her time. She puts on a Goodness Gracious Me accent to make jokes about Pakistanis and squeaks her way through a jibe at gay men. It’s awful stuff. “But it was the norm,” says Peake. “And we should never forget the strides we’ve made.”
As a character, she is ornery and negative; Peake doubts they would be friends. “I’d probably be frightened of her, to be honest.” More than anything, however, she is a survivor. She succeeds against the odds. “And I don’t think she’ll ever go back,” says Peake. “There’s hope in that.”