Barbara Parker, the protagonist of Nick Hornby’s new novel, is, we are told, ‘pin-up sexy, all legs and bosoms and blonde hair’. She is also a talented and quick-witted actress who, escaping her hometown of Blackpool on the day when she wins the town’s beauty contest, comes to London in 1964 to seek her fortune. After a spell as a shop girl, a chance encounter with an agent results first in her changing her name to the supposedly more commercial ‘Sophie Straw’ and then in auditioning for a new television show. This she predictably aces. She quickly finds herself playing the lead in a sitcom – Barbara (and Jim) – which is adored by the nation (‘the most popular comedy series in Britain’) and praised by the critics (‘Miss Straw is the most extraordinarily gifted comic actress I have seen since the war’). Famous, feted and sleeping with her handsome co-star, decline of one sort or another cannot be too far away.
At its best, Funny Girl displays that warm, tolerant understanding of human nature that has characterised Hornby’s finest work. Sophie’s relationship with her family and her slow-burning romance with the sitcom’s director and producer, Dennis Maxwell-Bishop, are touchingly portrayed and the author is careful to accord each of his characters