Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby, is a gentle and percipient story about a team who create a 1960s situation comedy drama for prime time television. The protagonist is a young woman from Lancashire, Barbara Parker, who wishes to emulate her hero, Lucille Ball, and become a comic actress. To achieve her dream she travels to London where, through a series of lucky events, she meets a pair of radio writers and a producer who have been commissioned by the BBC to create a half hour show for a TV series, Comedy Playhouse. The team, including the already cast leading man, at first reject Barbara as she does not fit the look they desired for the female role. However, when they allow her a read through of the script it becomes clear there is a spark they could work with. Their decision to give Barbara the part changes all of their lives.
Barbara adopts a stage name, Sophie Straw, and adores the work she is given by her new colleagues. Their conceits, wit and education draw her into a world where she is eager to belong. They in turn value her talent, and two of the men are drawn to her looks and figure. Where most actresses are tall, straight and skinny, Sophie is buxom and curvy. With her northern accent – almost unheard of within the corridors of the BBC – and ability to cut through the affectations of certain highbrow media people, she is the root around which the sit-com grows.
Light entertainment is looked down upon by the serious critics. Amidst the many social changes of the 1960s was a wider hunger amongst the growing number of television viewers for shared enjoyment. The insufferably serious minded frown vociferously on the choices made by the millions who avidly watch popular TV shows. They believe such programming should be ‘relegated’ to the commercial channel and the BBC remain above populism.
“What a terrible thing an education was, he thought, if it produced the kind of mind that despised entertainment and the people who valued it.”
Barbara, now Sophie, remains ambitious but finds that success does not bring her the satisfaction expected.
“She began to fear that she would always be greedy, all the time. Nothing ever seemed to fill her up. Nothing ever seemed to touch the sides.”
Her co-star also develops a type of melancholy when he realises that fame in a sit-com will not propel him into the lauded parts in film and theatre that he expected and craves. Meanwhile, one of the writers is working on a novel and wishes to be taken seriously by the literati. What had initially felt like a lucky break loses its charm and momentum.
The tale takes the reader through the changes in the team as four series of their show are made. It then moves forward in time to what comes next.
The team members’ personalities lead to differing outcomes in their personal lives. These are portrayed with a light touch but offer insights that provide the depth in an otherwise benign if engaging read.
The final section depicts the characters in their old age. Even Sophie has become a product of the media: surrounded by people who want fame via the entertainment industry, removed from those with other ambitions and therefore assuming they don’t exist.
“Sometimes it seemed as though all anyone wanted to do was write television programmes, or sing, or appear in movies. Nobody wanted to make a paintbrush, or design engines, or even find a cure for cancer.”
She retains her occasionally astute observations, especially around how the aged are treated and how they regard themselves.
“people of their age wanted to think about the future, like everybody else, but what they most wanted was to live in the present, rather than the past”
The writing is easy on the reader but there are plenty of nuggets to chew over, especially on individual ambition in the arts and hierarchical conceits. Although providing a somewhat nostalgic look at what some regard as a golden era of light entertainment, there is much that is relevant in today’s climate of artistic judgement of quality and popularity. The various discontents are well rendered.
A strong addition to the author’s oeuvre, this is an enjoyable, undemanding yet satisfying tale.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Penguin.