Funny Girl: a Novel
Nick Hornby (2014, Riverhead Books)
When we meet the Girl of the title, Barbara Parker is making the most of her face and figure to become Miss Blackpool, 1964. But, facing the prospect of a year of smiling and having her picture taken, she gives up her title and departs for London. She starts out with the same sort of dreary department store job she had up North, but her looks get her an agent, and her agent gets her an audition. (He hates the way all his models want to be actresses, but what can you do? And he comes up with her new name, Sophie Straw.) Once a couple of writers and a producer get a look at her, she lands the lead in a television comedy.
The show is called Barbara (and Jim). The parentheses are a way to get up the nose of Clive, the actor who plays Jim. He doesn't want to be a second banana in a show he has the lead in; he wants to be a movie star. The pair are written as an odd couple: Jim is university educated, a liberal from the Home Counties, somewhat tame and timid, while Barbara is a working class Tory from the North. Because of Sophie's sparkle and drive, this happy crew get to make a whole new kind of comedy: "The class system, men and women and the relationships between them, snobbery, education, the North and the South, politics, the way that a new country seemed to be emerging from the dismal old one that they'd all grown up in."
At the same time, and very neatly, Hornby gets to write a novel about all those things. Sophie is legitimately working class, though she takes pains to learn a more posh London accent. Her Dad and aunt, back home, are wildly proud about her being on the telly; they are the intended audience of such mass entertainment. The producer, Dennis Maxwell-Baker, is from the educated middle class; he gets no respect from his wife, a humorless blue-stocking who is cheating on him with an even more humorless intellectual, the sort who pontificates on the BBC Third Program, (and brags about not having a TV.) These two high-hat Sophie so badly at a party that Tony and Bill get an episode out of it. Dennis, naturally, has a huge but agonizingly silent crush on Sophie.
It's a fact of life: a new thing is always being born, especially in the 1960's. In the time it takes the Beatles to go from "She Loves You (Yeah Yeah Yeah)" to Revolver, Jim and Barbara have a baby, and go in for a fateful round of marriage counseling. Clive and Sophie get so famous that they date each other because the public expects them to (which is not, in private, so awfully much fun.) Tony, somewhat improbably, acquires a wife and child of his own; Bill writes a memoir about his wild gay youth; Dennis divorces his wife. And Barbara (and Jim) goes from 'Have you seen it yet?' to 'Oh, my Dad watches that.'
As Hornby shows us, there are many kinds of success. Would the critics of the day have disdained the laughs Shakespeare got? Is a script written to keep a kiddo in nappies less worthy than a slim volume of poetry? Is a book that sells 12,000 copies more important than a half-hour of television that seventeen million people watch? Maybe the end was written in the beginning; and maybe the best time of all was the first day Sophie walked in, a beauty queen with a genius for comedy, before the public had any stake in the world the five of them were making together.