Perhaps no British sitcom is more fondly remembered than Barbara (and Jim). The comedy series which enjoyed a popular four series run in the mid-1960s made a star of lead actress Sophie Straw and changed British TV forever.
Except of course, it didn’t, for convincing as this enjoyable novel by Nick Hornby is, neither Sophie Straw and Barbara (and Jim) ever existed. In fact, we first meet the fictional Sophie when she is still going under her real name Barbara Parker, poised to win and ultimately reject the title Miss Blackpool 1964. For while she is pretty, Barbara is also determined to be known for being funny like her heroine, US TV star Lucille Ball. Setting her sights on London, Barbara (now known as Sophie) dazzles a crew of jaded writers as she auditions for a hackneyed TV pilot going under the dubious title Wedded Bliss? Recognising they have discovered a major talent, the sitcom is transformed, Sophie is coincidentally given her own real name back for the main character and the show becomes a monster hit, acclaimed for its edgy depiction of modern family life. But before long, inevitably, the show loses momentum. With the lead couple saddled with a baby (a disaster as far as many sitcom writers are concerned) the series is ultimately squeezed out by an edgy newcomer To Death Us Do Part: a comedy which could hardly be more dated today.
Writing about a fictional comedy star and sitcom isn’t easy. Hornby avoids mentioning real life female comedy actresses of the period such as Joan Sims, Hattie Jacques or Joyce Grenfell and the Carry On films are never mentioned. Yet the creation of Barbara (and Jim) is utterly convincing even if a later story-line in the novel about the Funny Girl being reunited with her estranged mother adds nothing to the book.
Hornby also manages to dodge the usual “fictional comedies are never funny” issue. We hear surprisingly little of the dialogue from the sitcom yet the interaction between Sophie and the show’s three male creators off screen really sparkles with energy and wit. Hornby has written several well received screenplays now, notably An Education based on Lynne Barber’s memoir. Hornby’s own “education” is starting to yield real results.
A fine funny book and a return to form for Nick Hornby, the novelist.