Leave it to Nick Hornby to produce a smart comic novel that pits light entertainment against serious art and comes through as winning proof of the possibility of combining the two.
The author of High Fidelity and About a Boy is no stranger to both popular and critical success. Funny Girl, set in the world of 1960s British sitcoms, shares little more than a title with Barbra Streisand's 1968 movie about comedian Fanny Brice. But you can add Hornby's funny girl, Barbara Parker, a "21-year-old blonde bombshell" and Lucille Ball devotee who ditches her anointment as Miss Blackpool for a shot at a London acting career, to his stable of easy-to-root-for protagonists. Her life goal, along with keeping her teeth past 50 (unlike the rest of her relatives), is to make people laugh on the "telly."
With looks and luck on her side, Barbara quickly becomes Sophie Straw — a name chosen for its association with rolls in the hay. She tumbles into a leading role in a new BBC television series about the foibles of an odd-couple romance that bridges social and geographical divides by pairing an Oxford grad from the south of England with a woman who left school at 15. In one of many twists that deliberately smudge the lines between real life and sitcom reality, her character's name on the show is Barbara — and she too hails from up north in Blackpool.
Funny Girl crackles with class frictions, sexual tensions and the desperate pressure to stay fresh as it follows Barbara (and Jim) through the vicissitudes of multiple seasons and ever-morphing social trends. It borrows freely from the lives of its creative team, including its lonely, straight-laced Cambridge University-educated director and producer, Dennis Maxwell-Bishop, its two clever working-class writers, and its two impossibly attractive but shallow stars. This causes all sorts of amusing confusion, while raising pointed questions about art imitating life, and vice versa.
Hornby explores the pull between commercial entertainment and so-called serious art from various angles, including a riotous late-night television debate in which director Dennis defends Barbara (and Jim) by unnerving and then unhinging a "quite insufferably serious-minded" critic, who also happens to be the man who cuckolded him. "What a terrible thing an education was," Dennis reflects, "if it produced the kind of mind that despised entertainment and the people who valued it."
Not surprisingly, Hornby's depiction of the show's writing partners is particularly trenchant, resulting in far richer characterizations than his simplistic funny girl and her superficial co-star. Bill and Tony, who met in a holding cell in 1959 after being picked up cruising for illicit sex, spar as their attitudes toward both their work and their personal lives diverge.
Bill, liberated by the 1960s' increasingly relaxed attitudes toward homosexuality and eager to produce real literature that doesn't shy from offending people, has a hard time accepting Tony's conventional marriage and fatherhood as anything but a cop-out — never mind his willingness to keep churning out lavatory humor for the masses. "There are worse things to aim at than making people happy," Tony retorts. Yet even Sophie, with her single-minded goal of provoking laughs, later reflects that "entertainment had taken over the world, and she wasn't sure that the world was a better place for it."
Like a scriptwriting volcano, Hornby spews one molten scenario after another, filled with sizzling descriptions and snappy repartee. A stodgy older actor who speaks in a plummy, posh voice occasions this observation: "If bow ties could talk, Dennis thought, that was exactly what they'd sound like." When Sophie threatens to take their show to a commercial channel, the stricken BBC producer "had the look of a man who had arrived on the railway platform just as the train was leaving the station," Hornby writes. "To Dennis's amazement, he started chasing after it."
Funny Girl showcases Hornby's charming light touch and his willingness to embrace emotions without the cloak of irony, even at the risk of sentimentality. Touching? Often. Canned? Never. This book takes the pejorative sting out of the words "entertaining" and "heartwarming," and induces binge-reading that's the literary equivalent of polishing off an entire televison series in one weekend.