I am not hugely knowledgeable about Nick Hornby’s work, but I read one of his previous novels Juliet, Naked and although I found it a strange, uneven book, bits and images have remained. So when I saw Funny Girl I bought a copy as a present, then later borrowed it from the library to actually read!
I must admit, I could not see it greatly appealing to the person in their 20s that I first bought it for at first glance, but actually when I thought about it, this book does have some interesting things to say about how the expectations of women have changed.
The story opens in the mid sixties, when Barbara wins Miss Blackpool. Suddenly she realises that a year spent opening things and starring in the local paper is not enough. She has greater ambitions, to emulate Lucille Ball, currently starring in I Love Lucy . So she departs for London, leaving her family behind. She soon discovers that she has not got much of a clue about how to get into television, or indeed much else. Through a series of lucky chances, as well as fortunate glimpses of her real talent, she manages to fall in with some writers desperate for success with a pilot in the BBC Comedy Playhouse. By this time she has become Sophie Shaw, actress, and the new show “Barbara (and Jim)” becomes an unexpected hit. Television politics intervene, and gradually romance of a genuine nature enters her life. The story is gentle, the incident is realistic, and the narrative fairly strong.
I enjoyed this book because of its carefully constructed sense of period, helped by adverts, listings and general ephemera adapted to suit a fictitious TV hit. It reminded me of a childhood watching (too much) TV, and the way everyone watched the same programme at the same time. The central character is a optimistic, talented woman, who finds those who love her and treats them well. It is an emotional book, as she leaves her small, broken family whose reactions to her success are heartfelt. I found the depiction of the gay characters intriguing in a period when illegality and subterfuge were the order of the day, until challenged by determined individuals. I also found the way Barbara /Sophie was treated fascinating, on the basis of her looks before her talent.
I suppose my main criticism is that in many ways this is a dated book in terms of style. It depends too much on coincidence, of the heroine being at the right place at the right time, of everyone treating her well and fairly. I struggle to believe that her lack of knowledge and survival skills would have meant that she would have really succeeded so spectacularly in real life. This is a charmed life, but well lived. It is not a great literary work, but an enjoyable read. It is uneven and many issues go undeveloped, such as the way women were normally portrayed on screen at this time compared with this rather unusual series. So, less, a good summer read, but not as good on the role of women as some books currently available.