“No one will finance a film because I am in it.”
Did you hear the one about Maxine Peake’s new film Funny Cow, in which she dominates the screen as an aspiring stand-up comic on the Yorkshire working men’s club circuit? It was only made because her male co-star, who appears in at most one third of screenwriter Tony Pitts’ powerful, affecting movie, agreed to join the cast.
Not very funny, eh? But such is life for actresses and indie filmmakers in the UK.
Peake has been an acclaimed star of stage and screen for two decades since catching her first break in Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies, and through starring roles in such hits as Shameless, Silk, Three Girlsand a recent Black Mirror. But despite her high profile, it was Paddy Considine’s presence that ensured it was made.
“Ironically, we had to have a male star to get it financed,” says Peake, eyebrow raised. “And that is where Paddy Considine, bless him, stepped up and said he would be in it. And he is brilliant. Some actors have an energy that just shines out of them.”
Funny Cow was originally conceived after Peake and writer Pitts – who appears as her abusive, violent husband in the film and is best known for his recurring role as Inspector Moss in Peaky Blinders – worked together on Red Riding. A mutual interest in working men’s clubs sealed the deal.
“It is how you climbed up that slightly barbaric greasy pose in the comedy world,” says Peake. “I had always been fascinated by the idea of being a woman in working men’s clubs. Marti Caine’s story always struck a chord with me. It turned out Tony used to run comedy clubs, his mum had a passing acquaintance with Marti Caine, and he really knew that world. He went off and wrote the script in about two weeks.”
So far, so speedy. But only now, nine years later, is the film finally arriving in cinemas. In the intervening years, the passion project did the rounds of potential financiers.
“What drives you mad is that some would say it was quite violent. Hold on. We all watch films where people get their heads blown off, or where women are sexually abused or spend half the film lying on a slab.
“Eventually a producer called Kevin Proctor fell in love with it and moved hell or high water to get it made. We got funds from all sorts of places. We always laugh – I had to go and see a guy in Essex who runs a big international meat business,” continues Peake, a confirmed non-meat eater, as we tuck into matching plates of avocado on toast at a restaurant so posh both of us feel a little uncomfortable.
Peake is quick to point out that this “international man of meat” and his wife were “gorgeous, interested in art and luckily didn’t think we were insane,” and went on to help fund the film. But the story outlines just how many hoops UK filmmakers have to jump through – and why those of us who profess to support independent film need to get out and support independent film at cinemas.
In the weeks since our conversation, Peake has directed One Hand Tied Behind Us– a series of monologues at The Old Vic marking 100 years of women’s suffrage, continued filming new C4 series Bisexuals alongside rising star Desiree Akhavan, and topped the bill at a BFI weekend exploring the impact and influence of working class talent in filmmaking, and considering whether working-class talent is still able to thrive in 21st-century Britain.
I never set out to be a star. When I started, I just wanted to act. In anything.
Eclectic, yes. But with clear through lines. Peake’s work these days is unashamedly political. Before going to Rada, Peake says, she was constantly told “you can’t, you can’t, you can’t”. This led to a driving ambition to prove people wrong.
“But where has that taken me? I never set out to be a star. When I started, I just wanted to act. In anything.
“Now I have to stop and question what I am doing it for. My desire for fulfillment has changed. I want to do stuff I feel invested in. But it is a struggle. There are not that many good scripts.”
The search for scripts, and the ongoing desire to change the conversation led Peake to start writing. “I call myself a writer now. That has been a big shift,” she says.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
Radio plays were her way in. First came Beryl – about unsung cycling star Beryl Burton, which has since been staged at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Next up was Queens of The Coal Age, about the four women who, with humour, determination and solidarity occupied the Parkside Colliery pit in 1993 to try to prevent its closure. Again, the script has evolved into a full stage production, opening at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in June.
The came last year’s The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca, about the women who took on the government over fishermen’s safety and won, which was staged as part of Hull’s City of Culture.
A focus on “ordinary women who do extraordinary things” is, she says, the theme that links her work. “But it is also about the power we have, and why we don’t realise that individually and as a mass we can make changes.”
The next big acting role for Peake is another story of struggle that is close to her heart. She wrote to Mike Leigh asking for a role in his upcoming film Peterloo, set to be released ahead of the bicentenary of the atrocity that saw 15 people killed by government forces in Manchester as they campaigned for an extension of voting rights. Unsurprisingly, he agreed.
As a society how can you look yourself in the eye when people don’t have the basics, like a roof over their heads?
For, in 2013, Peake read Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchypoem, which was inspired by this shameful chapter in British history, at the Manchester International Festival. The resulting candlelit recitation was spellbinding, ending with the powerful line: “Ye are many, they are few.”
That phrase has now been adapted and adopted by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. And Peake approves. So what are her current big issues?
“There are so many causes now everyone’s head is spinning,” says Peake. But to name a few: the hostile policy towards immigrants imposed by Theresa May as Home Secretary: “It is cruel and it is criminal and it is bullying.”
The housing crisis: “As a society how can you look yourself in the eye when people don’t have the basics, like a roof over their heads?
“I’ve been filming in a little flat on Arnold Circus recently. It’s an Airbnb now, worth 750 grand. Can you imagine if you were the architect who designed Arnold Circus as social housing? We are at crisis point as far as housing is concerned and it will not end until we stop thinking of bricks and mortar as an investment.
“We should be out on the street – and I don’t just mean a nice day out on the South Bank with a placard. It has to be more than that.”
The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements? “It’s great to see the groups and movements being set up at the moment. With young people at the very forefront and very engaged.
“I’m just concerned that we keep focused. I hope people are able to keep their attention on it. All the old political beasts I know say you have to enjoy the struggle. The struggle can be long and it can be painful – you have got to find some pleasure in it.”
Writer, actor, activist… and also musician. Following 2013’s ace electronica LP about the Pendle Witch Trials as part of the Eccentronic Research Council, Peake teamed up with Johnny Marr after press interviews revealed a mutual fandom. Last year the duo released a special collaboration. And The Big Issue played a major role.
“We had been talking about the homelessness situation in Manchester and how overwhelmed by it we were. It is so heartbreaking and it felt like it was being ignored,” says Peake.
“I spend a lot of time in central Manchester because I work at the Royal Exchange Theatre. So I get to know the guys outside. You start a dialogue. You hear their stories and they are so complex. It really started to get to me. What could we do?”
What they did was produce a powerful song called The Priest (above) – music by Johnny Marr, spoken word vocals by Maxine Peake, lyrics by former Big Issue vendor Joe Gallagher.
“Johnny is obsessed with psychogeography. It is his thing. We talked about writing about the city, and at the moment, the city of Manchester at night, the nocturnal city. It is their city – the people on the street.
“I was looking for first-person narratives on homelessness. I found Joe’s diaries in The Big Issue. And it was amazing. I had tried a reading from The Communist Manifesto, but it was Joe’s diary that really struck a chord with Johnny.
“We got in touch with Joe, he was so open, so blown away by the fact we had done it. But not as blown away as we were by him writing with such eloquence. What an amazing guy.”
The collaboration is set to continue.
“Now Johnny and I are working on an album. I have been writing words, he is doing the music, and we want to do a live show,” says Peake. “It is going to be quite an undertaking – we want it quite theatrical.”
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