Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl: Delicious 1960s nostalgia

Posted by Michael Edwards

Michael Edwards peers between the pages of Funny Girl, Nick Hornby's loving paean to the London of the Swinging, but rather sordid, Sixties.

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby“Nick, do you think you’ve written the wrong book?” If Funny Girl was Hornby’s debut rather than seventh novel you could see a literary agent having a difficult conversation with the novelist.

This immensely readable novel is a loving paean to the London of the Swinging, but rather sordid, Sixties. The problem is that it just takes so long for the characters to matter more than the deliciously nostalgic settings. A blustery Miss Blackpool pageant of goose-bumps, Sunday dinner of fatty lamb and boiled cabbage, families arguing which “side” to watch and a glimpse of Terence Stamp dining in a trendy Italian restaurant all pay testimony to Hornby’s meticulous period research. Remember he was just seven in 1964.

There is no doubt that the narrative is driven by the ambition of blonde busty Barbara – a photo of 50s model Sabrina – making us realise just how busty Barbara may have been. Yet in 1964 you would have worried about a girl whose sole ambition was to become Britain’s answer to Lucile Ball. Five decades on, and thousands of Here’s Lucy repeats later, it only seems more bizarre.

“Nick, she begins by giving up her Miss Blackpool title within minutes of winning. Moves to London. Sells cosmetics in Derry and Toms, puts a few sixpences in the meter of her Earls Court room, bumps into an agent and before you know it is starring in a BBC Comedy Playhouse production. She has more front than Blackpool. Such is her presence and comic timing that they call it Barbara (and Jim). Her unbelievable ascent makes Cinderella look like gritty snail-paced realism.”

Single-minded Barbara, who takes on the stage name Sophie Straw, just doesn’t engage the reader. When her father has a heart-attack she doesn’t take the train until her show has been recorded and has a luke-warm relationship with Clive her co-star.

Nor is she that funny - on paper. Bringing 1960s sitcom scripts to side-splitting life in a novel is a challenge even for a writer as talented as Hornby. We have to take his word that Sophie’s performance was so hilarious that one of the studio audience vomited over the seat in front of her. Maybe Hornby selected the wrong media. Funny Girl, with Hornby’s  affection for the gentle Light Entertainment of the 1960s, is just waiting to be made into a magnificent Film on Four period piece.

Surely the more credible, more thought-provoking, story is with the scriptwriters Bill and Tony. In the dying days of their National Service they had shared a cell after being arrested for cottaging. Tony disciplines himself into an initially asexual marriage while Bill struggles with the desire to bring his homosexuality into the open.  Eventually Bill has the courage to publish his Diary of a Soho Lad.

With both characters just a mistake from prison readers may feel that Hornby has cast away the story of a friendship that could have produced a memorable novel or movie. Benedict Cumberbatch as Bill? Eddie Redmayne as Tony?

The last fifth of the book is an epilogue set in 2014. It begins with the programme notes to a film celebration of the 50th anniversary of Barbara and Jim’s wedding, giving updates on the careers of those involved since the last episode.

Sophie, or Barbara, in her seventies struggles a little with memory, insomnia, aches and pains that she had hoped would only be temporary. With age, as she looks back over life and career, she has mellowed and becomes a much more likeable character.

As the characters come together to produce a follow-up play, fifty years on, amusingly given a world premiere in Eastbourne, they come to realise that for all their desire to be politically correct they still cling to believes and traits of the 1960s – their time.

It’s an entertaining read but it is just waiting to be made into an award-winning film.

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby is available to buy on Amazon.

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