Reading “Funny Girl” was like meeting an old friend and being reminded all over again why you liked them so much in the first place. With wit, optimism and gentle compassion, Nick Hornby summons up the zeitgeist of Britain in the 1960s and 70s through the medium of TV comedy on the BBC.
Like Hornby himself, I was a child in the 1960s, so I missed some of the nuances of BBC comedy, failing to see what was daring and subversive but still understanding what was truly funny.
Hornby helped me to remember what it was like at the start of the 60s when we had only two TV channels in England, the BBC and ITV. EVERYBODY watched the same programs and discussed them the next day because those were the only programs available. I was seven when BBC 2 went on air in 1964 but I couldn’t watch it because we didn’t have a telly that could cope with the fancy 625 line UHF transmission. We were still watching a small box with a big tube that used the much lower definition 405 line VHF transmission. Of course, back then, everything was in glorious black and white. Even so, programs like the BBC’s Comedy Playhouse attracted huge audiences and launched series that EVERYONE watched (Steptoe and Son, launched by the Comedy Playhouse, attracted audiences of up to 28 million – about half of the population of the UK at the time).
“Funny Girl,” tells the story of Barbara, a young woman from “up North” who declines to accept the title of Miss Blackpool and moves south to London to follow in the footsteps of her idol, Lucille Ball and become a comedian. She clicks with the writers of a new show for the BBC, they re-write the show as a showcase for her and her career takes off.
As we follow Barbara’s career from ingénue through the comic star to redoubtable Dame of British Television, Nick Hornby helped me understand the transitions that Britain was going through and the role comedy played in helping audiences to understand themselves.
I was deeply impressed by Nick Hornby’s ability to write a novel that often made me laugh but which is centred around very believable, very human characters, with strengths and flaws and personality quirks, who he describes with a compassion that comes very close to love and which generates a possibility of hope that I found very affecting.
This well-written book was made even better in audio by a superb performance by Emma Fielding who got every voice and every accent absolutely right and amplified the value of every page.
If you’d like to hear her reading “Funny Girl”, click on the soundcloud link below.