Being Barbara: Gemma Arterton on taking a comic turn in Sky’s new comedy-drama series, Funny Woman

Flexing her comedic muscles, Gemma Arterton talks about her leading role in the adaption of Nick Hornby’s novel about a fictional sitcom in British telly’s golden era.

Coming to Sky Max and Now this February, Funny Woman is a six-part series based on Nick Hornby’s 2014 smash-hit novel. Set in the swinging 60s, it follows the journey of a young woman who dreams of making it big on the telly.

Opening in Blackpool in 1964, we are introduced to Barbara, a bright young woman with a dream of doing more than making sticks of rock in the local factory and settling down with a local lad. Heading to London, Barbara has a chance encounter with a talent agent, Brian Debenhams (Rupert Everett). Soon, she’s no longer flogging hats in a West End department store. Instead, she’s catapulted into the limelight in a bold new sitcom that’s as revolutionary as the decade she’s living through.

“Women were accessories in comedy, and British comedy was sexist before the likes of Victoria Wood and Jennifer Saunders started coming through,” says Arterton. “The roles that women had to do were the Benny Hill type or the Carry On sexualised parts”.

The role of Barbara posed a number of challenges for the actress, including having to adopt a Lancashire accent. “Thankfully, my best mate is from Blackpool,” says Arterton. “She went to drama school and has this slightly affected accent, but her son has a proper Blackpool accent, and I spoke to him about it as well as working with a dialect coach.” As well as mastering the accent, Arterton also trained with physical theatre and movement director Toby Sedgwick. “Physical comedy is a passion of mine, I worked with Toby for a couple of weeks, so that I could implement the physical stuff from the script.”

Arterton says that she was drawn to Barbara’s unconventional character, and the say she finds her voice during an important time of change for British comedy. “More edgy working-class humour started to come through,” she says. “The theme throughout the show is how Barbara tries to relate to the showbiz world, being who she is and where she’s from.”

In the show, Barbara is catapulted into a world run by TV execs and the Oxbridge Mafia – a clique of prestigious writers and producers with clipped English accents and a privileged education. They ruled over the comedy world until the appearance of the alternative comedy scene of the 1980s when the likes of French and Saunders and Alexei Sayle began to emerge. Arterton was glad that Morwenna Banks, who adapted Nick Hornby’s novel, was writing the show. “Coming up through comedy, Morwenna had so many people say to her that she couldn’t do this or that,” she says. “It’s better than it was, but there is still an undercurrent of old-school people that still work in the industry.”

Arterton was also happy that the show challenges racism. “I loved what Morwenna [Banks] did with the character of Dennis, the sitcom director,” she says. In the book, Dennis, who is one of the show's writers and later director, is white. Banks however decided to make him British Asian. The role is played by Arsher Ali, an actor who has been vocal throughout his own career about the challenges faced by British Asian actors.

Whilst written with a fine balance of drama and humour, the show also tackles the challenges of 1960s culture, which was rife with sexism and discrimination. “Barbara struggles with people judging her on physical appearance, rather than who she is and what she can do, and that happens with a lot of women in workplaces.”

The ethnicity of Ali’s character allowed the cast and production to explore one of the most problematic issues in British comedy history – brown and black face. “There’s a great storyline where they have an Indian actor in the sitcom and Dennis wants to get an Indian actor, but the execs want Spike Milligan to don brown face - which happened in real life,” says Arterton. “We see how Dennis has to handle and reckon with that.” As well as the character of Dennis there is also Diane, played by Clare-Hope Ashitey, a Black journalist navigating a white-dominated world. “Her character is inspired by authentic experiences of working in the British television industry in the 1960s. We all wanted it to feel genuine.”

Whilst many actors are often passionate about the productions they perform in, Arterton had an additional level of involvement with Funny Woman - she was also a producer on the show. “When we were in pre-production, I, along with the team, were all involved in the creative decisions, and that was great. But when it came to shooting, I decided to step back and focus on acting,” says Arterton. “What was special about Funny Woman was that it was a carefully crafted process where I, and the team, had a say, which made it an incredibly satisfying series to work on.”

Most significantly, Barbara is a character who gives Arterton a chance to show a side of herself that audiences may not have seen before. “Sometimes you get a character you have an affinity with. Barbara was one of them,” she says. “She’s a character that I feel I always wanted to play, and it was a role with a lot of stuff in there that I was finally able to let out.”

Funny Woman is on Sky Max and Now from 9 February 2023

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