Book review: Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

Hornby perfectly evokes the charm of London in the 1960s. Picture: Getty
Hornby perfectly evokes the charm of London in the 1960s. Picture: Getty
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I MADE many mistakes as a weekly newspaper cub reporter, one of them out of sheer boredom. Tuesday was the dread-day for captioning the dinner-dance photographs, an unchanging world of rotarians and bowlers in serried ranks, always “accompanied by their wives”. Trying to find a new way of saying the same old thing I opted for “lady friends”, being ignorant of the dubious connotation. Cue lots of irate letters.

Funny Girl

Nick Hornby

Viking, £18.99

Early on in Nick Hornby’s new novel, chaps step out with women who are not their wives – indeed the author’s heroine, Barbara Parker, finds herself cast in the role of lady friend not long after arriving in London from Blackpool. It is 1964, and everyone has been waiting. For euphemism and primness and the old order to be replaced by something altogether more bold and “with-it”. For dark furniture to be ditched for white walls. For dinner dances to be usurped by discotheques. For Lady Isobel Barnett to give way to Lady Chatterley’s Lover. For Arthur Askey to clear off and for the Beatles to be everywhere. For – nothing less – “the birth of modern Britain”.

This quote comes from a rave review of Barbara (and Jim), a dazzling new situation comedy that you would say had captured the zeitgeist of ’64, if they used such terms back then, which of course they didn’t, not when so many men were still maintaining potting sheds.

Potting sheds, Parma Violets, Cassius Clay, The Virginian, Commando comic, football pools, false teeth, Babycham, Matt Munro, bus conductors, beauty queens, The Gambols. If like me you’re the same age as Hornby – 57 – all of this should form a corner of your childhood patchwork-quilt. But he doesn’t overdo the pop-culture references. This is a subtle, charming, winning book about a period in our recent history to which we keep returning, again and again.

Think Mad Men’s many British copies. More specifically, think The Hour, a TV show about a TV show, and better still, all those one-off BBC4 dramas concerning the making of telly – Hancock’s Half-Hour, Steptoe And Son, Opportunity Knocks, Coronation Street, Doctor Who – when the medium was burning with its whitest heat. Barbara (And Jim) is Hornby’s imagined series from this time, scripted by a double-act not dissimilar to Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who of course wrote Hancock and Steptoe, but unlike all of the above programmes, the star is a woman. And, if I may use the language of the pre-decimalisation age: cor, what a woman.

A potting-shed pin-up, for sure. “Pneumatic, kinetic,” drools that gushing crit. Miss Blackpool for precisely ten minutes, at which point she decides she wants to be known for more than just her figure. Initially she invites comparisons with Sabrina, another buxom Blackpoolian, who was Arthur Askey’s little helper, but this one as we soon discover is nobody’s blonde bimbo, nobody’s lady friend and no longer anyone’s Barbara Parker. She changes her name to the Sophie Straw because it sounds posher with the dream of becoming Britain’s answer to Lucille Ball.

She’s funny, smart, sexy and strong, and she needs to be, because nearly all the men around her have a tendency to behave like wimps. The sitcom’s producer won’t confront his wife about her affair. The co-star won’t confront his parents over them continuing to invite his ex-girlfriend round for tea. One of the writers won’t confront his – euphemism alert – difficulties in the bedroom. The other writer hides his homosexuality, but then these were harsher times.

Some may find the story a little too cute. Our heroine’s rise to national celebrity is sudden, effortless and without setback. Even her agent won’t exploit her, instead falling in love with her like almost every other man.

But you can be cynical if you want to; I loved this hymn to the 1960s, their infinite creative possibilities, television production at the forefront, and good old-fashioned teamwork.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Hornby was partly inspired by a visit to the offices of Associated London Scripts in Shepherd’s Bush. Unassuming on the outside, they once housed a fun factory within. I was fortunate enough to interview Eric Sykes there before he died. Even though his last TV show had finished decades before, Eric still turned up for work a couple of days a week, sat behind his Sherman tank of a desk, and thought about comedy. Spike Milligan had been dead three years by that stage but he still had a pigeon-hole in the hall and what’s more he was still getting mail.

Surely Funny Girl will make it on to TV – ideally, with Sheridan Smith in the lead.