Nick Hornby’s novel Funny Girl follows the life of Barbara Parker, a young woman from Blackpool who idolizes Lucille Ball and dreams of becoming a comedienne. It’s 1964 when Barbara enters the Miss Blackpool beauty pageant, and even though she gains the title, she knows it’s not what she wants. Society favours looks over talent all too often and Barbara decides she can’t trade on her looks. So off to London where she gets a job at Derry and Toms on the cosmetic counter. Many of the young female employees, would-be actresses, read The Stage. Barbara is “anxious for news of anyone who had found some sort of secret show-business tunnel out of the store.”
Living in a grimy bedsit with a flat mate and working a boring job only leads to more acting dead-ends until she meets agent, Brian Debenham on a night out at Talk of the Town. Brian signs Barbara for her stunning blonde good looks and voluptuous figure, and while many consider these assets, Barbara runs the risk of being type cast. At first Brian doesn’t understand that Barbara really wants to act. He tells her to “smile. Walk up and down. Stick your chest and bottom out.” Brian sees Barbara as cheesecake:
Sweetheart, you only have to stand there and people will throw money at me. Some of which I’ll pass onto you. Honestly, it’s the easiest game in the world.
Barbara’s faith in herself leads her to a casting call for Comedy Playhouse where she meets writers, Bill and Tony, Dennis the junior comedy producer and actor Clive. It’s meeting that marks the turning point of her life.
Success comes to Barbara when she is cast in Barbara (and Jim) as a Northern girl from working class roots who meets and marries a posh London tory. The series smashes norms of the times by cashing in on class, education, and political differences through its two main characters. The novel draws in many cultural icons of the times, Till Death Us Do Part, Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe and Son and that perennial favorite, Radio Times. Hornby recreates the shifting social scene of 60s Britain with the BBC facing ITV as a competitor, and formerly taboo subjects making their way onto the TV screen.
It’s all very well done and it’s a great trip down memory lane. The novel is expository so we don’t get into Barbara’s head as much as follow her life, her career, and her personal choices. It’s a fun light read but will have more appeal to British readers for its cultural references. All I could think of was Barbara Windsor….