14 February 2024

Funny Woman: Making it in the 60s

British comedian Morwenna Banks (Slow Horses, and the voice of Peppa Pig’s Mommy Pig) has adapted Nick Hornby’s bestselling novel Funny Girl into a series of the same name, directed by Oliver Parker (Johnny English Reborn). The story centres on Blackpool beauty queen Barbara Parker (Gemma Arterton) as she tries to make it as a comic actress in London at the height of the Swinging Sixties.

Real-life women in television comedy at the time – like Monty Python’s Carol Cleveland (a former beauty queen) and the Carry On Films’ Joan Simms and Barbara Windsor – had to spend a lot of time standing around in bikinis while being the butt of innuendo, and generally got treated like sexy props (which gets a nod in one scene with a cleavage-obsessed director), but Nick Horby wanted a better deal for his Barbara. And the series gives her a shot at becoming the British version of her idol – American funny lady Lucille Ball. Under the stage name Sophie Straw, she steals the spotlight as the character Barbara in the smash-hit TV series Jim and Barbara to the point that the title later changes to Barbara (and Jim)!

Stream Funny Woman on Showmax now. New episodes on Thursdays.

Creating cool London

Funny Woman is on Showmax

Funny Woman production designer Jacqueline Smith recreated Swinging 1960s London, with Pam Downe leading the Wardrobe team to make sure that Barbara would catch the eye and look like a star, no matter where she was during the show.

Each set tells a story about Barbara’s worlds, and what women’s lives were like behind the scenes in entertainment. Locations include TV interview show sets, sitcom filming sets, the CTV (think BBC) headquarters, casting agents’ offices, posh shops, and characters homes including Barbara’s bedsit flat and comedy producer Dennis Mohindra’s (Arsher Ali) Mid Century Modern (MCM) house. Fortunately, the recent MCM revival made sourcing furniture easier than it could have been, with one model of sofa in particular coming straight off the Ikea shop floor.

Debenham’s office

Barabara/Sophie’s talent agent Brian Debenham has an old-school gentleman’s office and between his tight suit and all that wood panelling the effect is very much that of a cigar nestled inside its cigar box. And it probably smells like one, too, since both he and his secretary and wife Pam (Morwenna Banks) smoke indoors.

Funny Woman S1 is on Showmax

A bust of Shakespeare on Brian’s desk hints at his clients’ grand ambitions, while framed black and white glossy photos pay tribute to the ones who’ve made it. And a bottle of champagne awaits on the filing cabinet in hopes of celebrating a client landing that big role. All this hints at Brian being the real deal, luckily for Barbara.

PS: For scenes in which Barbara is visiting the office, Pam Downe deliberately dressed her in especially bold colours so that she’d stand out against the dark background.

Barbara and Marj’s flat

Barbara has a small room in her friend Marj’s (Alexa Davies) London flat. True to the time, it’s a poorly lit sardine tin, with underwear and other clothing strung up to dry in all the living areas like nudists’ party decorations, since it would have been washed in the bath and hung up to dry as washers and dryers were out of their price range, as was dry cleaning.

The flat setup is typical for what a “shop girl” could afford at the time, with power and heat supplied by a coin-fed gas metre. As for wall colours, flooring and possibly even furnishings and bedding, you’d be at the mercy of whatever the landlord found cheapest.

Lewis Peters

Down to the striped wallpaper, the Lewis Peters shopping centre where Barbara and Marj work early on in the series, while trying to make it in the big city, is based on a real-life shopping centre, Derry & Toms, which catered to the posh older customers in London’s Knightsbridge High Street.

The main hall of the Martins Bank building in Liverpool was dressed to look like the shop interior, with special focus on the period-accurate displays in the women’s makeup, accessories and fashion departments. With the shop girls in uniform and each department forming little cliques in the cafeteria, and department heads prowling like strict teachers, being at Lewis Peters is like never having left school! And for many of the girls, it’s a hunting ground to find a husband … even someone else’s husband, if he has expensive tastes and deep pockets.

The Jim and Barbara set

It’s easy to forget that the Jim and Barbara sitcom set is actually a set-within-a-set, since it’s filmed on the Funny Woman soundstage.

Jim and Barbara’s living room and bedroom sets are filled with muted browns, from the white-trimmed beige walls, to the couple’s mid-toned orange-brown wood furniture, brown velvet sofa, mottled brown and cream carpets, and mustard bedspread. The whole idea is for the set to fade into the background, allowing the audience to focus on Jim and Barbara without distractions.

When we see Barbara’s childhood home in Blackpool it looks as if everyone in Britain at the time decorates in brown, perhaps with tiny smatterings of orange as a treat. As Barbara becomes more famous, though, the environments she steps into will change to have brighter, clearer colours.

PS: Scenes set at the big blue glass TVC skyscraper headquarters were filmed in the old Pilkington glass factory in Merseyside in Liverpool.

Time and place

As well as forming backdrops and illustrating character journeys, these sets are reminders that Funny Woman is set at a specific point in history.

While TV comedy at the time is a tough world for outsiders like Barbara to chip away at, we also get some perspective on what it was like for Black women as we see up-and-coming reporter Diane (Clare-Hope Ashitey) having to bring and apply her own makeup and dress her own hair because there are no other Black women on the staff of the supposedly youthful, progressive magazine show, Tonight with Andrew O’Shea.

And Funny Woman spotlights sitcom producer Dennis Mohindra (Arsher Ali) and his writers’ own battles with the whiter-than-white, posher-than-posh, straighter-than-straight establishment. Funny Woman episode 4 highlights a little of how gay culture thrived underground, including glimpses of how gay men, especially in the theatrical world, connected using a slang called Polari (since the UK didn’t decriminalise homosexuality until 1967). And wait till you find out who’s getting cast to play a Pakistani character – The Goon Show’s Spike Milligan! It’s a gleeful, period-accurate in-joke from the Funny Woman writers, as Spike’s Goon Show teammate Peter Sellers had a box office smash-hit playing Indian character Hrundi V Bakshi in the 1968 comedy, The Party.

It’s fun to visit the past but Funny Woman reminds us why it’s better to be a tourist when it comes to time travel.

Watch more

Read more about making series set in the past on Showmax. See more of what British TV was like in the 1960s in Nolly.

And enjoy more shows and movies about making shows and movies in The Comeback, Barry, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Anchorman, and Anchorman 2, Irma Vep, Entourage, Swimming with Sharks, The Newsroom.

(And look out for Babylon from Thursday, 29 February)

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