A bombshell beauty longs for laughs
Barbara Parker’s father and aunt are thrilled when she enters the Miss Blackpool 1964 competition. She’ll win, finally be happy and forget all that nonsense about moving to London.
“She’d be famous in her own hometown, and who could want for more? And then she could have a go at Miss UK, and if that didn’t work out she could just think about getting married, when there would be another coronation of sorts.”
But Barbara has other plans: She’s desperate to escape Blackpool and the dead-end life it represents. She wants more than to be Miss Blackpool or Miss UK, or just move to London. Lucille Ball is her heroine, after all.
“She didn’t want to be a queen at all. She just wanted to go on television and make people laugh. Queens were never funny”
Barbara wins the competition and promptly flees to London. She finds herself an agent, Brian, who renames her Sophie Straw — to conjure up visions of a roll in the hay — and who’s convinced all Sophie has to do is stand around looking gorgeous for the cash to flow in. To his horror, he discovers Sophie actually wants to act. She auditions for a comedy show, and almost before she knows what’s happened, she’s starring in what becomes a smash hit.
If you’re looking for laugh-out-loud funny, this isn’t the book. There are amusing moments and plenty of lively banter. What kept me reading, though, is the way Hornby can dig beneath the superficial. He’s often perceptive about his characters and their attempts to manoeuvre their way through the darker, more difficult side of life.
Sophie is a woman who struggles against the standards of her time and harshly defined gender roles. She’s smart, if not well-educated and longs for more than she has, emotionally. Unfortunately, the character isn’t as fully developed as she could be. Sophie wants to get ahead, but even though we’re presented with her family history and love life, and her thoughts on both, she remains unsatisfyingly flat — like someone you want to get to know better but who never really allows you in. She’s such a clever woman, but we never understand why she mysteriously takes longer than she ought to clue into her father’s skewed take on politics or why she’s so willing to settle for Clive, the show’s co-star, when she’s not willing to settle for so much else. Simply because it’s easy? Not good enough. Because it’s the expected thing? That’s hardly what Sophie usually does.
Far more compelling are the duo who write the TV show, Tony and Bill; in particular, Tony. The two meet in jail after consorting in a public bathroom and partner professionally shortly after. Their friendship and writing relationship becomes increasingly fraught as Tony decides to marry a woman he’s convinced he loves, while Bill, angry at what he views as Tony’s duplicity, risks a dangerous lifestyle. How Tony’s story plays out, why he marries, and stays married ends up being a good deal more convincing than Sophie’s motivations.
As a side note, it’s interesting that Hornby doesn’t take more advantage of his setting, choosing to show little of the swinging scene London was known for at the time. Everything seems a step removed from that heightened world of fashion and culture, with just brief moments tucked in here and there. Instead the focus is on the behind-the-scenes, backstage lives of the characters. Hornby excels in the small moments away from the limelight, the quiet pain and sometimes joy of everyday life. And the rare laugh. Worth reading, even though this book might not be quite what you’re expecting.