Writers: Nick Hornby, adapted by Morwenna Banks
Director: Oliver Parker
In the television adaptation of Nick Hornby’s 1968-set novel, Funny Girl, Gemma Arterton has found a role she has been waiting her whole career for, a chance to be smart and funny as wannabe comedy star Barbara. This gleeful six-part Sky Max production has a glossy veneer with plenty of beautiful outfits and bouffant hairdos but its understanding of women’s roles, class and prejudice in all areas of the entertainment industry, along with the clash of traditional ideals within an evolving society give the more appropriately titled Funny Woman an added depth in Morwenna Banks’ screenplay. And as a star on the rise, Arterton has never been better.
On becoming Miss Blackpool, the beautiful Barbara immediately realises a year of window dressing is not for her and immediately decamps to London where she takes a job as a hat assistant in a department store. But Barbara dreams of comedy performance which leads her first to a seedy showgirls club but soon to TV success as Sophie Straw. But fame brings its own problems and soon Barbara / Sophie is fighting on all fronts.
Funny Woman is a light-hearted but meaningful examination on exclusiveness in a very white, male and heterosexual television industry as well as the ways in which a working-class woman and her writing team – which includes a gay writer and producer of Indian descent with Cambridge credentials – attempt to navigate and ultimately try to beat the system. The comedy troupe scenes are among the best elements of this charming series as the group gather in the rehearsal room to prepare each episode of their wildly successful sitcom, and where a different kind of freedoms and collaboration exists.
The details in this adaptation are delightful, from the continual movement between the glamours of the television studio to Barbara / Sophie’s grotty flat that she shares with friend Marjorie to the small but primly kept Blackpool terrace where she grew up with her father and aunt. Within that there are endless micro and macro aggressions directed at her, as well as her comedy partners, the experience of being a beautiful, female comedy performer during this period is shown to be one of slow transition between generations that carefully but completely infuses her whole life and every episode of this series.
And Arterton bestrides it all with a very clever every-woman performance. Barbara doesn’t take herself too seriously and Arterton embraces the times that her character has to look or be silly. It makes the viewer really care for her, willing her to succeed against the odds because the famous Sophie, the underpinning reality of Barbara and especially the actor Gemma deliver such joy through this performance.
In this, Arterton is ably supported by Arsher Ali as producer Dennis who first takes a chance on her, a delightfully arrogant Tom Bateman who finds a kind of empathy eventually, Matthew Beard and Leo Bill as the writers, Alexa Davies as her flatmate and, not forgetting, Rupert Everett as her slightly creepy agent, as well as David Threlfall as her wonderfully kind father. Together they people the world around Barbara while creating enough of their own lives and struggles to make this feel like a convincing ensemble.
Arguably this is quite a lightweight treatment of some very complex issues and Funny Woman does skirt over the darker and violent consequences for women in the 1960s in a way that Last Night in Soho, for example, did not. The surrounding cast are also caricatures, with few of them developing sufficient individuality to break free of their 60s gloss. But still the series has such a spring in its step with barely a falter in style across six episodes that it really brings Hornby’s novel to life and has great fun doing it.
Episode One of Funny Woman premieres on Sky Max on 9 February.