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Friday, November 14, 2014

'Funny Girl' by Nick Hornby

From the BLURB:

Funny Girl - the much-anticipated new novel by Nick Hornby, the million-copy bestselling author of About a Boy Make them laugh, and they're yours forever...

It's the swinging 60s and the nation is mesmerized by unlikely comedy star Sophie Straw, the former Blackpool beauty queen who just wants to make people laugh, like her heroine Lucille Ball. Behind the scenes, the cast and crew are having the time of their lives. But when the script begins to get a bit too close to home, and life starts imitating art, they all face a choice.

The writers, Tony and Bill, comedy obsessives, each harbour a secret. The Oxbridge-educated director, Dennis, loves his job but hates his marriage. The male star Clive, feels he's destined for better things. And Sophie Straw, who's changed her name and abandoned her old life, must decide whether to keep going, or change the channel.

Nick Hornby's new novel is about popular culture, youth and old age, fame, class and teamwork. It offers a wonderfully captivating portrait of youthful exuberance and creativity, and of a period when both were suddenly allowed to flourish.

‘Funny Girl’ is Nick Hornby’s first new novel in five years – beginning in 1964 and taking us through to present-day 2014 – the lifespan of one British situation comedy called 'Barbara (and Jim)', and the lives of its stars and creators.

I had the best time reading this book. There’s no other way to say it – I loved everything about ‘Funny Girl’, and it often happened that the time spent reading Hornby’s book on the train was among the better parts of my day.

And to explain part of my giddy-infatuation with this novel, I must defer to a Melina Marchetta quote from ‘The Piper’s Son’, when Tom Mackee claims to be a member of the club: “Survivors of childhood subjugation to watching ‘The Bill’.” Because that’s me – my mum was born and raised in the UK and came over to Australia as a teenager. As a result, one-half of my family are firm believers in the superiority of British television. I grew up watching ‘Fawlty Towers’, ‘To the Manor Born’, ‘Absolutely Fabulous’, ‘Birds of a Feather’ and ‘As Time Goes By’ to name a very, very few. I was also obsessed with ‘I Love Lucy’ growing up – a show that my cousin and I used to watch on a daily basis in the afternoons when we were younger (Lucy and the grape stomp remains one of the greatest moments of TV for me) and as a result, I grew up adoring Lucille Ball (‘The Long, Long Trailer’ is easily one of my favourite movies of all time). And this is the premise from which Nick Hornby built ‘Funny Girl’ and the character of Sophie Straw (once, Barbara from Blackpool).

Nick Hornby set out to re-imagine British comedy history, by writing the history of the fictional ‘Barbara (and Jim)' TV series, and likewise a Lucille Ball-esque British TV star in Sophie Straw. The book blends wishful thinking and BBC history brilliantly – and also provides black-and-white photographs to aid the references (so clever, since it stopped me from pausing my reading to do a Wikipedia search for some actors mentioned!).

The book is told in third person, and dedicates chapters to the main-players involved in ‘Barbara (and Jim)’. There’s Sophie Straw herself, who moves from Blackpool to London to chase her dreams of stardom – after working the cosmetics counter for too many depressing months, Sophie stumbles into an audition and meets her tribe. There’s Tony and Bill, the writers, and closeted homosexual friends who are coming off National Service and want to emulate their comedy gods with a TV series of their own:

‘We all love Lucy.’
‘We’re students of comedy,’ said Tony. ‘We love anyone who’s funny.’ 
‘Lucy is one of our people,’ said Dennis. ‘Galton and Simpson are our Shakespeare, obviously. But she’s our Jane Austen.’

Dennis is the Cambridge-educated BBC producer – the uneasy go-between the head of BBC light entertainment and this collection of talented writers and performers. Dennis is stuck in a loveless marriage with his cheating wife, when he meets and falls instantly in love with Sophie.
Then there’s Clive – the (and Jim) to Sophie’s more titled character of Barbara. He fancies himself a thespian on the way to becoming a movie star … but so far, he has all of the ego and not quite enough talent to pull it off:

‘What’s she like?’ said Bev. 
‘Sophie? Yes, she’s very nice.’ 
‘You should be with her,’ said Bev. 
There was no wistfulness in her voice. She seemed to be speaking as a television fan, rather than as a lover.
'Do you think?’ 
‘Yes. Can you imagine?’ 
‘Imagine what?’ 
‘You’d be like the Burton and Taylor of the BBC. Everyone would go mad.’
'Do you think so?’ 
‘Well, I’d love it, and I’m lying in bed with you.’ 
It was quite a persuasive observation.

This is Nick Hornby’s first new book in five years – but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been writing. He adapted a screenplay of Lynn Barber’s memoir into the wonderful 2009 movie ‘An Education’ – and that film clearly left quite the impression on him. Not only has he chosen to revisit the 1960s he so brilliantly captured in that movie, but there’s something of an echo between Jenny Mellor (played by the effortlessly superb Carey Mulligan) and Sophie Straw of this novel. It’s in the way that Jenny pined for London and a more interesting life while listening to French records on the floor of her bedroom … but was bitterly disappointed by the realities of her romance with playboy David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard). There’s likewise something to be said for Sophie Straw, who – during the height of her fame – finds herself wondering who “the people” are that she’s trying to impress … is it the mass audiences, the fans? What about making herself happy?
 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.

I can also see that Hornby is the better in this novel for his film work (he has also adapted Cheryl Strayed’s novel ‘Wild’ for the big screen, starring Reese Witherspoon). It’s in his biting commentary of fame and self-absorbed actors – often distilled in the character of Clive – and his musings on popular culture, mass “light” entertainment versus high-brow art (something he clearly has an opinion or two about, since he’s long been labelled something of a lad-lit novelist, rather unfairly). But really it’s especially apparent in the dialogue – Hornby has pitched this novel being set in a rather “golden age” of British entertainment, and it certainly feels that way to the reader. These characters are smart and sharp – their dialogue bounds off the page, and even though we’re only ever given occasional summaries of ‘Barbara (and Jim)’ scenes or episodes, it’s completely believable that this TV show is as funny as everyone seems to think it is – because the actors and creators are funny, they ping off one another and camaraderie that fuels creative genius is apparent on the page. The whole book also reminded me of the wonderful ‘Doctor Who’ TV movie about the show’s BBC production, ‘An Adventure inSpace and Time’ – it’s that mix of nostalgia and vitality, of tipping your hat to those who paved the way.

This is also a more thoughtful Hornby novel, particularly when we get to the tail end of the character’s careers and meet them in present-day. But even though Hornby is writing about the improbability of such vital people who lived through the era of change and sexual revolution aging, there’s something scarily relatable to be read here. Indeed, when Sophie muses on the absurdity of her aging, I can see myself wondering the same thing in the future (however distant it may seem to me):

It was absurd that they were getting old, thought Sophie – absurd and wrong. Old people had black-and-white memories of wars, music halls, wretched diseases, candlelight. Her memories were in colour, and they involved loud music and discos, Biba and Habitat, Marlon Brando and butter.

I adored ‘Funny Girl’. It’s a favourite novel of 2014, for sure. And I really can’t think of higher praise than simply reiterating what a joy it was to read – often the best part of my day was spent with Sophie, Tony, Bill, Clive and Dennis. Nick Hornby certainly hasn’t lost his Midas touch – in fact, much like the crew of ‘Funny Girl’, he only gets better with age.


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