10. Mr Bean
08. Lead Balloon
07. The Office
06. Yes Minister
05. Men Behaving Badly
04. One Foot in the Grave
03. Father Ted
02. Fawlty Towers
01. Royle Family
Yep, for me the Brits do it best. Sure the Americans had some classics in the early days of television coming to Oz – such marvels as ‘The Honeymooners’, ‘Father Knows Best’ and ‘I Love Lucy’. But really, since the Dick van Dyke/Mary Tyler Moore franchises were put to bed, I cannot remember any Yank comedic series I religiously watched. I know these days my darling lady adores ‘The Big Bang Theory’ and my writerly daughter remembers ‘Friends’ with much affection – but these and many other US sit-coms bypassed me entirely. And yes, Australia has produced some efforts that have tickled my funny bone in the years since ‘My Name’s McGooley, What’s Your’s?’ – titles such as ‘Mother and Son’ and ‘Kath and Kim’ come to mind. I am also quite partial to local stuff like ‘The Games’ and ‘Utopia’. But for me it’s UK half-hour comedy for the small screen that really does it – and as you can see above, I had a stab at producing a Top 10. It wasn’t an easy exercise. I couldn’t find a spot for such diamonds as ‘Absolutely Fabulous’, ‘Keeping Up Appearances’, ‘The Young Ones’, ‘Episodes’, ‘Gavin and Stacey’ or my current fav, ‘Derek’ – although there would be those that argue that the latter is anything but funny. And true aficionados would shake their heads in horror as to how I could possibly leave out what many consider to be the greatest of all – ‘Barbara (and Jim)’!
And this is the iconic show that Nick Hornby has written about in his latest tome, ‘Funny Girl’. It is the series that proved to be such a step up from the glum fare, such as ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’, that the English were glued to before it arrived, all bright and sparkly, on the scene. It put the light back into light entertainment and first brought an England in transition into our lounge rooms. As well, this is the gem that introduced the world to the delights of Sophie Straw, the UK’s buxom challenger to the stranglehold Lucille Ball had on the title as world’s greatest comedienne. This voluptuously gorgeous woman, as we know, then went on to such hits as ‘His and Hearse’ and ‘Salt and Vinegar’, before closing down her career as the much loved matriarch of the long running soap, ‘Chatterton Avenue’.
In Hornby’s ‘Funny Girl’, the author takes us behind the scenes to the making of the four rib-tickling series of ‘Barbara (and Jim)’, now repackaged for our viewing pleasure, all these years on, in a box set, currently available at JBs for $49.95. This is extraordinary value considering most of the master tapes were thought lost until re-discovered by mysterious uber-fan Max. This release also celebrates last year’s golden anniversary of the comedy’s first emergence from the BBC and into the homes of Britain. It was also shown here in Oz, but was not the great hit it was back in Old Blighty. So if you were maybe a fan back in the sixties you will be delighted how well its humour still stands up – sort of timeless in the manner of Fawlty or Mr Bean. If you are too young to remember it in its heyday, you could do worse than the show’s box set as a suitable gift for the woman/man in your life. But it would be an advantage for them to read this book first, to place it all in context.
Our author is best known for his fiction, having produced such best-sellers as ‘High Fidelity’, ‘About a Boy’ and ‘Long Way Down’. He has also delved into non-fiction before with his classic memoir ‘Fever Pitch’, as well as scripting a movie – ‘An Education’. It has been recently announced that Mr Hornby is about to write a television series of his own, ‘Love, Nina’.
Nick H commences his tale with the genesis of the show. Two tele writers, struggling for an idea, are inspired when they first come into contact with the alluring Ms Straw – the freshly minted winner of a Miss Blackpool pageant. She has come south to London to try her luck, just as the Swinging Sixties are getting underway. What follows is an in depth look at the four seasons of ‘Barbara (and Jim)’, with some emphasis placed on the personal lives of those involved. This includes the supposed romance and subsequent engagement of Sophie to her leading man, played by Clive Richardson. He, Hornby claims, was none too happy with getting second billing to an unknown – with his name in brackets as a sort of afterthought. It seems he must have quickly mellowed towards his co-star, although I do remember at the time wondering whether the affection between the two was a media beat-up to improve ratings. Its number one status, around then, was being challenged by ‘Steptoe and Son’ and ‘Till Death Us Do Part’. It wasn’t long before it turned out she was wedded to her producer, the somewhat lesser-profiled Dennis Maxwell-Bishop. Their union was, considering the business they were in, long and happy till his passing a few years back.
Finally, Mr Hornby takes to the underwhelming attempts to capitalise on the nostalgia for the show with the original cast and writers being enticed to get back together for several ill-conceived projects. Of course they are now a mere shadow of when they were in their pomp – Clive R appearing as if he’s already in la-la land. You can’t turn back time and to my mind Nick H should have left this sorry spectacle well alone. I’d prefer to remember them when they helped take the minds of the British away from post-war gloom to the brighter future that lay ahead once the Beatles and Stones made London such a happening place. Later that decade one of the writers, Bill Gardiner, bravely announced that he was homosexual with the publication of his ground-breaking ‘Diary of a Soho Boy’ – still in print.
Illustrated with period images, Nick Hornby, on the other hand, breaks little new ground with this work, but it is an amiable and in places, quite an enchanting read.. For those of us with enough years under our belts to remember those times it is a valuable account of the optimism that came with so much societal change and I know, as a young man, the delectable Sophie Straw sure had an impact on me. Happy memories – so thank you then Nick Hornby.
Nick Hornby’s website = http://www.nickhornbyofficial.com/
‘Love, Nina’ article = http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/feb/16/nick-hornby-writes-first-tv-drama-love-nina