Set in 1960’s London, Funny Girl is a lively account of the adventures of the intrepid young Sophie Straw as she navigates her transformation from provincial ingénue to television starlet amid a constellation of delightful characters. Insightful and humorous, Nick Hornby’s latest does what he does best: endears us to a cast of characters who are funny if flawed, and forces us to examine ourselves in the process.
Audiobook read by Emma Fielding
Riverhead Books (2015), Hardcover (ISBN 1594205418 / 9781594205415)
Fiction, 464 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Penguin Audio, February 2015, ISBN 9780698195653; Audible ASIN B00RC52GMQ)
In my opinion, Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl has a somewhat misleading title. Calling this novel Funny Show might reflect its premise a bit more accurately, because it’s not so much about a comedienne as it is the team and the television sitcom that made her a star.
Before Sophie Straw rose to fame playing “Barbara from Blackpool” on the popular 1960s BBC comedy Barbara (and Jim), she actually was Barbara (Parker) from Blackpool…and she wanted to be Lucille Ball. She struggled to convince London casting directors to look beyond her blonde-bombshell exterior and see her comic gifts until one fateful audition, where her particular combination of naiveté, outspokenness, and timing made such an impression on the producer and writing team that they revamped the premise of their comedy pilot to make her character its star.
The pilot’s success led to several seasons (“series” in British TV terms) of stories about the odd-couple marriage of Barbara and Jim. While some episodes presented classic sitcom scenarios, like the bathroom remodel gone horribly awry, it was the 1960s; the times were changing, and Barbara (and Jim)’s writers, Tony and Bill, and its BBC producer, Dennis, wanted to push a few boundaries and try to mine comedy from social commentary. Sophie, their star and their muse, eagerly participated as the show paved the way for far more daring comedies to follow.
I often laughed out loud while reading Funny Girl, and I while found Hornby’s cast of characters largely appealing, I felt that his title character was somewhat underdeveloped. I would have expected the “funny girl” to be a stronger presence, but I frequently sensed we were seeing Sophie more through others’ eyes than via her own sense of herself. Given that she’s an actress and television star, perhaps that’s fitting, but I was a little disappointed by it.
On the other hand, I really enjoyed the depiction of Britain in the 1960s. The novel conveys the sense that the country was finally emerging from the effects of World War II, nearly twenty years after it ended, and that gave me the impression that the decade was an even more dramatic time of change there than it was in the USA. Funny Girl also hit my sweet spot for behind-the-scenes entertainment-industry stories; descriptions of the making of Barbara (and Jim) often reminded me of parts of An Adventure in Space and Time, the BBC dramatization of the origins of Doctor Who.
British actress Emma Fielding was a delightful narrator for this audiobook. Funny Girl contains many dialogue-heavy scenes, and her voice characterizations were distinct enough for me to avoid confusion over who was speaking at any given time. It’s been a few years since I read Nick Hornby; Funny Girl was a fine reminder of why I’ve enjoyed him in the past, and why I shouldn’t go so long without reading him again.
Rating: Book, 3.75 of 5; Audio, 4 of 5
“She didn’t want to be a beauty queen, but as luck would have it, she was about to become one.
“There were a few aimless minutes between the parade and the announcement, so friends and family gathered round the girls to offer congratulations and crossed fingers. The little groups that formed reminded Barbara of licorice Catherine wheels: a girl in a sugary bright pink or blue bathing suit at the center, a swirl of dark brown or black raincoats around the outside. It was a cold, wet July day at the South Shore Baths, and the contestants had mottled, bumpy arms and legs. They looked like turkeys hanging in a butcher’s window. Only in Blackpool, Barbara thought, could you win a beauty competition looking like this.”