‘We've come so far, even since the MeToo movement', Gemma Arterton says ahead of Funny Woman role
It's 1964 and girls are expected to be flirty, fabulous and fertile – but Barbara Parker is different.
Labelled a bold, brash force of nature, the beauty queen-turned-wannabe comedy superstar goes against type in the title role of Sky Original Funny Woman – a new TV adaptation based on Nick Hornby's bestselling 2016 novel Funny Girl.
The six-part drama follows Parker (played brilliantly by Gemma Arterton) as she journeys from Blackpool to London on a mission to reinvent herself and find her voice in the male-dominated world of the 1960s sitcom.
The ensemble cast includes Rupert Everett as Barbara's agent Brian; David Threlfall as Barbara's father George; Tom Bateman as charming actor Clive; and Arsher Ali as straight-laced love interest Dennis.
“It was such an iconic time for comedy, for culture, when this whole wave of new comedy started happening,” Arterton begins. “More edgy working-class humour started to come through and for a woman to be in that world was unusual at that time.”
Taking on the lead was an easy ‘yes' for the 37-year-old King's Man actor who, having read the book and attempted to win the rights to it some years earlier, says landing the role felt “quite serendipitous”.
“I could hear her voice in my head,” she proclaims. “And then years later I got sent the pilot episode by Potboiler Productions and it was amazing. Morwenna (Banks') writing was bang on.
“And I just loved the character,” adds the Kent-born star. “There's something about her I connected with; I think it's her sense of humour and her wit and what she comes up against.
“She wants more from life than just being a beauty queen, working in a rock shop and becoming a wife. So she goes to London to try and make it as something – and finds herself auditioning for a Comedy Playhouse.
“From there on it's the journey of her becoming a sitcom star and finding her voice,” concludes Arterton, whose own production company (Rebel Park) co-produced the series.
Since her breakout role as head girl Kelly Jones in St Trinian's, Arterton has racked up stand-out performances – whether it's as Bond girl Strawberry Fields in Quantum Of Solace or Sister Clodagh in the BBC adaptation of Rumer Godden's classic novel Black Narcissus.
So does she recognise some of the barriers Parker faced?
“There were things that I could relate to,” she says. “But I think we've come so far, even just since the MeToo movement.
“But definitely in my earlier stuff, with accents and things, people going, ‘Oh you've got (a regional accent)' – I don't any more. I've chickened out and taken on some other accent but there was a little bit of that.”
She follows: “We've all had our experiences. It's way better than it was but there's still an undercurrent because old-school people still work in the industry.
“Morwenna and I have channelled some of our own experiences into this – but I'm not telling which ones they are!”
Meanwhile the physical makeover took some adjusting to, admits Arterton, who had to don a bouffant blonde wig for the part.
“It was a big transformation, but once we got that, I was like: ‘Oh, there she is.'
“On day one, the day of the poster, blue dress, the hair, I remember looking in the mirror and thinking, ‘Whoa, I've got blue eyeshadow on, a big blonde wig and I don't look like myself'. I felt a bit clowny but it really helped me to let go,” she says, having also perfected the Blackpool dialect.
However, the fashion, “we all had a lot of fun with”, Arterton adds excitedly. “We had Pam Downe design the show – she also did The Trial Of Christine Keeler – and she knows about the 60s. She got in some pieces from Mary Quant and various other designers.
“It was nice to wear the genuine stuff. It's my favourite time for fashion.”
To get into Parker's performative mindset, Arterton watched hours of Lucille Ball in American ‘50s sitcom I Love Lucy – “I was obsessed!”, she quips. “I mean, the woman was incomparable, really, an amazing performer and writer. And what she was doing at the time was so pioneering, but it was a big influence for me in terms of the clown aspect.
“I also did some clowning, and I threw myself into watching loads of Pete and Dud, which if anyone has not seen, it is one of the best comedy things to watch,” she muses. “It was just great to research all of these things.”
“But it didn't always have to be like, go, go, go, gag, gag, gag,” she's keen to point out. “There was space for drama, and it was a fun challenge to try to make the audience cry and laugh within 10 minutes…
“Luckily, I'd worked with our director Ollie Parker before on St Trinian's, so I really trusted him. It was satisfying to have the full gamut of things to play within a show.”
Can she see Parker serving as a role model for contemporary women?
“I hope so! I mean, she is a bit of a doofus as well, a ‘dippy doodle', that's what she calls herself,” shares Arterton, who at the end of last year announced she's expecting her first child with actor husband Rory Keenan.
“She can't help but speak up for herself. Whether she feels like she should or shouldn't, she ends up doing it. And that's just who she is.
“She's definitely not perfect but she's a good egg and I love her.”
As for a second season, “that's something we're working out at the moment”, Arterton insists.
“There are loads of places for her to go. We're always talking about: how do you get from Barbara Parker to Victoria Wood? She's writing her own stuff, she's really established, and she's really respected, and she's got the power – and then in between she's making mistakes.
“So yeah, so that's what we're doing, which is really fun.”
Funny Woman is available on Sky Max and streaming service NOW from Thursday February 9.