Funny Woman review: the Nick Hornby adaptation starring Gemma Arterton might be set in the 1960s, but it never gets in the swing
Nick Hornby has had a mostly harmonious relationship with the screen. In 1997, the author himself loosely adapted Fever Pitch, his memoir of life as a long-suffering Arsenal fan, into a film with Colin Firth as a commitment-phobe and Ruth Gemmell as the woman competing with his beloved team for his attention.
eyond the title and the fact that Firth’s character supported the Gunners, it didn’t have a lot to do with the book, yet was agreeable enough on its own modest terms. It was certainly better than the flashier American remake with Jimmy Fallon as a major fan of the Boston Red Sox.
Hornby was much better served by the movie versions of his first two novels, High Fidelity and About a Boy. Both were terrific and the latter became a major box-office hit that pushed Hugh Grant’s career in a revelatory new direction (there were later TV spin-offs of the two, over which it’s best to draw a discreet veil).
But this largely happy marriage between author and adaptation seems to have hit a rocky patch with Funny Woman (Sky Max, Thursday; all episodes available to Sky subscribers), a six-part comedy based on his 2014 novel Funny Girl. Presumably, the change of title is to avoid confusion with the 1968 Barbra Streisand film Funny Girl.
Hornby is billed as an executive producer, as is star Gemma Arterton, who hides her natural brunette hair under a bottle-blonde wig as Blackpool lass Barbara Parker.
It’s 1964 and Barbara works in a local sweet factory, rolling sticks of rock alongside her devoted dad George (David Threlfall), who she adores and who adores her back.
She lives with him and her aunt Marie (Rosie Cavaliero). Her mother ran out on them some years before. Barbara enters a local beauty contest, never dreaming she’ll win it. She does, of course, and initially she’s delighted.
But as she listens to a leering newspaper photographer (not the first sexist creep she’ll encounter along the way) talking about how she’s going to spend the next year making personal appearances and opening supermarkets, while he tags along, snapping and slavering over her, she has a sudden change of mind.
She removes her winner’s sash, places her crown on the head of the runner-up and strides off, in slow motion, naturally.
She then legs it to the bright lights of swinging London, where she plans to find fame and fortune in showbusiness — just like her idol Lucille Ball, then the biggest comedy star on television, who’d taken on and beaten the men who dominated the TV industry at their own game.
Instead, she finds herself working in the hat department of a posh department store, where her blunt Blackpool honesty (she tells one rich old biddy the hat she’s chosen looks like “a dead badger”) doesn’t exactly endear her to her starchy boss (Doon Mackichan). Struggling to get by on her meagre wages, Barbara moves in with a friendly fellow employee called Marjorie (Alexa Davies) and learns that flirting with well-off male customers can pay dividends.
Borrowing one of the store’s expensive dresses, she has a date with an ageing smoothie, who turns out to be married and tries to sexually assault her in an elevator, tearing the dress.
Barbara gets the sack. In the meantime, though, she’s caught the eye of a veteran theatrical agent called Brian Debenham (the wonderful Rupert Everett, as ripe as a month-old banana) and his wife Patsy (Morwenna Banks, who also wrote the script).
Brian sees a future for Barbara as an actress and provides her with a stage name: Sophie Straw, because it sounds a bit like singer Sandie Shaw.
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Funny Woman traces Barbara’s journey from shopgirl to sitcom star, via some disastrous auditions, a spell in a strip club and the attention of predatory men.
The period trappings have been slathered over the whole thing with a trowel: gaudy colours, endless needle drops and fake 8mm home-movie camera footage blended with the real thing. A red London bus is rarely far away.
But it never feels like anything other than a pastiche, and for a series called Funny Woman, it’s not nearly funny enough.
Hornby, who put a lot of himself into his early novels, was just seven in 1964. This feels like something constructed from second-hand impressions.
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