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'Funny Woman' Recap: Episode 1

Daniel Hautzinger
Barbara in a white swimsuit, tiara, and sash holds a bouquet and stands next to a suited man and in front of a seated and standing woman
Barbara has her sights set on greater things than beauty pageant winner. Credit: Potboiler Productions and Sky UK Limited

Funny Woman airs Sundays at 9:00 pm on WTTW and streaming. Recap the following episode.
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Barbara Parker wants to be famous – but not for her beauty, which is what everyone notices. She lives in the northern English town of Blackpool, where she works at a candy factory run by her loving father George, and wins a beauty pageant there to her surprise. That success gives her the idea to abandon her butcher fiancé Aiden and set off for London, where she hopes to become an entertainer, like Lucille Ball or the people behind a comedic radio show that she and her father adore.

But first she has to pay the rent, so she gets a job as a department store clerk, helping ladies buy hats. She’s too honest for the work, sharing her true opinions, until her boss tells her to simply tell every woman that her chosen headpiece is “absolutely perfect.”

Barbara befriends a fellow shop girl, Marge, who explains the hierarchy of departments – hats is only just above shoes, where Marge works – and offers to let Barbara move in with her. Barbara leaves her bed-and-breakfast to live in what she tells her father is a “penthouse” flat: a top-floor set of rooms in a shabby building. Marge snores and washes her clothing in pots in the kitchen, and the two young women don’t always have enough money to keep the electricity on.

Still, Barbara is excited about the possibilities of the city. She wants to see theater, so Marge tells her that the women who work in the perfume department often get taken to shows by men looking for a good time – Barbara is pretty enough to pick one up. So Barbara subs for a perfume girl and attracts the eye of Valentine, an older man who invites her to a show.

Barbara doesn’t have a suitable evening dress, so Marge trades the diet pills her father sends her with another shop clerk in exchange for a striking red dress from the department store for Barbara to borrow.

Barbara is naive. She’s unfamiliar with the Campari and soda Valentine orders her, and inserts herself into a conversation he’s having with a business associate and his wife. Valentine awkwardly introduces Barbara as a secretary from his office who took him up on a spare ticket. As the men go to get drinks, the wife disdainfully tells Barbara that Valentine is married and has kids, to Barbara’s shock. When he returns, she pointedly asks about his wife before leaving.

She befriends the woman working the coat check and instantly turns on another older man who tries to talk to her. He introduces himself as Brian Debenham, and assures her he’s not trying to pick her up – his wife Patsy is there, and corroborates him. He has other things in mind for Barbara, but she leaves, disgusted, to go to the bathroom.

Valentine bursts into her stall and tells her he’ll get what he paid for, before covering her mouth and trying to rape her. The woman from coat check climbs over a stall and hits him, helping Barbara fight back and escape to hide amongst the coats.

Barbara eventually leaves, walking home in the pouring rain. Brian and Patsy catch up with her and hand her a business card: he’s a theatrical agent. Patsy gives her money for a taxi.

Marge thought Barbara knew what she was in for with Valentine – it’s 1964, and misogyny is rampant. But she shows some sympathy when she realizes what Barbara went through. Barbara will stay home from work the next day, and asks Marge to return the borrowed dress.

Barbara uses her last bit of money for her weekly call to her father at a public pay phone, but her Aunt Marie has schemed to have Aiden arrive just as it comes. Mary is worried about Barbara, especially since she is the same age as her mother Gloria was when she disappeared. Aiden picks up instead of George and tries to convince Barbara to return to Blackpool. When George finally comes on, Barbara can’t get herself to speak, and the call cuts out when her money runs out.

The next day, Barbara covers her bruise with makeup and goes to visit Brian Debenham. She does a Lucille Ball impression for him, but he tells her she has real star quality – she doesn’t need to “make faces.” He suggests she brand herself as Sophie Straw – Barbara Parker is provincial, and Sophie Straw will have men thinking about having a roll in the hay with her.

Barbara reluctantly agrees, but insists on going out for a speaking part. Brian is surprised that she actually wants to act – he wanted to have her and Patsy shop for a bikini for her for auditions. But he lines up some auditions.

Barbara is passed over for all of them: her Northern accent is an issue, or she’s not the right shape, or people just think she should go work at a peep show. And she needs the work now: she has been fired from her job at the store because her boss found out she borrowed a dress.

Brian gives her a card for a club to audition as a dancer, telling her that he’ll drop her as a client if she can’t get that. She refuses, and eagerly listens as he takes a phone call about a TV sitcom for which one of his clients was rejected. She’s wrong for the part, which calls for an educated brunette, not a working-class blond, but she notes the address and marches over.

She sneaks in while the casting agent is escorting another girl out, and drops a name she overheard from Brian’s phone call to the producer to pretend she had an audition scheduled. When she learns his name – Dennis Mahindra – she’s overjoyed: he’s behind her beloved radio show. She also recognizes the other three men watching auditions: two are writers for the show, and one is an actor for it. The writers are charmed that she knows who they are.

Clive, the actor, has already decided on who he wants for the part, and it’s not Barbra. But the writers are unsatisfied. Clive finds the idea of Barbara playing the role laughable. Nevertheless, she launches into an over-the-top acted-out version of the radio show for them on a whim, rushing to an ending as the casting agent returns and dismisses her. “As if we’d ever hire someone like her,” the casting agent sniffs.

With that snub ringing in her ears, Barbara passes the club for which Brian wanted her to audition. She goes in and gets a job as a dancer.