Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

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Reviewed by Annabel   

A new publication from Nick Hornby is always something I look forward to, be it a new volume of his positive book reviews from The Believer magazine or, even better, a new novel.  On the face of it, Funny Girl may seem a bit of a departure for Hornby, being set in the 1960s when his others have been contemporary, but when you factor in that he wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay of Lynn Barber’s 1960s memoir An Education, it seems entirely natural that he should move back a few decades for his own work too.

Funny Girl is the story of a TV comedy series and all the people involved in making it. It’s about being creative, the value of teamwork and star-making; it’s also about class, age, and popular culture, with the perennial subject of everyone needing someone to love threaded through the narrative. It doesn’t start in the TV studios in West London though. The story begins in at a beauty contest as Barbara Parker is about to be crowned Miss Blackpool; the photographer is ready:

‘I’m always taking photographs of Miss Blackpool. Hospitals, shows, charity galas … She’s got a lot of responsibilities. It’ll be a busy year. We’ll be seeing each other a lot, Barbara, so you’ll have to get used to my ugly mug.’ …

… An entire year? What  had she been thinking? … she hadn’t thought about how she’d still be Miss Blackpool in three hundred and sixty-four days’ time. She knew then that she didn’t want to be Miss Blackpool in an hour’s time. …

Fifteen minutes later, the runner-up, Sheila Jenkinson, a dopey redhead from Skelmersdale, was wearing the tiara, and Barbara and her father were in a taxi on their way back home. She left for London the following week.

Barbara wants to be a funny girl, like her heroine Lucille Ball of the I Love Lucy show she watches religiously to learn from. Blackpool is not where to do it. Arriving in London, she soon finds digs, a job at a department store and an agent. Untrained as she is, he suggests she should start by modelling, but Barbara doesn’t have time for that.  Brian rechristens her Sophie Straw – she’s not happy with the surname, but Brian says “But even if I, a happily married man, somehow end up thinking about rolls in the hay, imagine how all the unhappily married men will feel.”  Sophie has her first glimpse of the seedier side of life in the spotlight.

After several weeks of no luck, Brian sends her off to an audition for a new comedy programme called Wedded Bliss. Its scriptwriters, producer and male star are all moving from radio to TV. Brian knows she’s wrong for the part and the show is bound to be a flop. To cut a long story short, Sophie goes to meet the team and they fall for each other. What’s more, with her great comic timing they take her suggestions on improving it seriously.  Wedded Bliss becomes Barbara (and Jim). By the end of the first series,Sophie and smarmy co-star Clive have become stars.

Continuing success requires constant reinvention and new situations – particularly once new show Till Death Us Do Part starts wowing viewers.  Hornby captures the struggles of the script-writers and production team perfectly as they try to think of new angles for Barbara (and Jim) to retain their audience share.

Away from the cameras, there is life to be lived, or endured depending on your situation  – and everyone involved has a secret of one kind or another.  Sophie has been seeing her co-star Clive, a situation loved by the newspapers, but you can never see that lasting. Director Dennis is stuck in a loveless marriage and carries a torch for Sophie.  As for Tony and Bill, who are in the very much in the mould of Galton and Simpson, and complete opposites in love and life, the pressure may tear their partnership apart. Have they got another series in them?

What was so great about this novel was that Hornby didn’t choose an edgy show to focus on. He went the cosy route, creating a middle-class comedy about a northern lass marrying a southerner and the trials of their everyday life in the suburbs – a bit like a younger version of Terry and June. It’s a winning formula, for on the show, misunderstandings always get ironed out with a laugh – and real life is a little different – well sometimes.  Funny Girl unashamedly celebrates a golden era of light entertainment, and although there is grit underneath the surface, seen through Hornby’s nostalgic glow, nothing is insurmountable. Sophie is a straight-talking heroine of great personality and charm. She is perhaps slightly too good to be true, but meanwhile the other characters all behave exactly as expected, and this gives the novel a slight feel of being a play within a play, then playing out in Hornby’s head.

Excepting Fever Pitch and Slam (his YA book) I’ve read and enjoyed all of Hornby’s novels and would pitch Funny Girl in the upper middle. It is always entertaining and doesn’t try to be an outright comedy itself. Instead, it shows how comedy can be created and that glimpse behind the scenes is altogether more fascinating.  The ending, when it comes, is rather well-done, but I’m not telling.

Hornby has been busy adapting other books into screenplays recently, (Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn – I shall look forward to seeing the latter in particular) – however, I do hope he doesn’t leave it another five years until his next novel.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books Editors and as a child her family would definitely have watched Barbara (and Jim), ‘the silly old moo’ of Till Death Us Do Part being deemed rather too rude for young minds!

Nick Hornby, Funny Girl (Viking, London, 2014) 978-0670922802, hardback, 352 pp..

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