From "Are You Being Served?" and "Keeping Up Appearances" to "Fawlty Towers" and "Absolutely Fabulous," Americans have long appreciated British situation comedy with strong female characters. But the history of the woman-centered Britcom is surprisingly fraught, with origins in the early 1960s, when the emerging freedoms of the so-called Swinging '60s were still denied many women working in light entertainment.
It's the story of Barbara Parker, a beauty queen from Blackpool in the north of England who makes her way to London to pursue her dream of becoming a sitcom star along the lines of her heroine, Lucille Ball. After a shaky start during which her upscale looks and lower-class accent turn out to be significant barriers, Barbara stumbles into a partnership with a comedy-writing team, a pair of gay men named Tony and Bill, who write a BBC comedy series for her about modern marriage, class, politics and other topics largely ignored in the frothy fare of the day. Under her stage name, Sophie Straw, and opposite her co-star, Clive, she becomes a favorite of the British public, and a long run follows — at least until the pleasures of teamwork, so heady at first, begin to fade.
Printers Row Journal recently caught up with Hornby, 57, for a Skype interview from his office in London. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: The period of the book — the Swinging '60s — is a key element. I wonder how you chose it.
A: Well, one answer is that when I thought about what I wanted to do — which was to write about collaborative work, and young people being at the top of their game — (it) was to see them old at the end of the book. I didn't want to set the ending in the future, as it were, so I thought, "I'm going to make the old people now, and then back to where that takes me." That took me to the 1960s. And when I thought about that, I thought it was a period I would quite like to write about. A movie I wrote called "An Education" (2009), is set in 1962-'63, and this novel pretty much begins where "An Education" left off. I'd started to think about the period back then, and enjoyed it, so I was quite excited by the prospect.
Q: People think about the Swinging '60s in London as a time of great freedom — people having lots of sex and doing lots of drugs, getting into rock music and so on. But in a lot of ways, your portrait of the time and place cuts against that grain. Particularly for women, it was a time of great oppression. You could argue that a woman of that time was nearly as oppressed as at any previous time in England.
A: Obviously things were beginning to change, but yes, for women things were quite a long way behind. If you look at the cultural institutions of the '60s, there wasn't a lot of place for women in them. But also I think it was quite a small group of people who came to define the Swinging '60s.
Q: The swingers, you mean.
A: Yeah. I suspect it was a couple of hundred people. It wasn't like that for everybody.
Q: And if you were a woman at that time, such as Barbara in the beginning, your destiny was arguably just as tied to your ability to attract a man as it was in Jane Austen's time.
A: I think that's probably true. The feminist movement really didn't start kicking in until at least the end of the decade, possibly later. A lot of the women who worked in music or entertainment were very much defined by how they looked.
Q: Like the British bombshell Sabrina, who's mentioned early on in the book.
A: Exactly, like Sabrina. (Laughs.)
Q: I think Americans don't know much about her. She was a very beautiful young woman who was prized for her looks, somewhat like Marilyn Monroe, but unlike Monroe, not given much to do onscreen. Was she an icon in the U.K. at that time?
A: I have to say, I didn't know about her until I started reading about the period. By the time I was old enough to remember things, she was kind of long gone. But yes, she was on television and in magazines an awful lot.
Q: She was known for having a large ...
A: A large chest, yes. That was her talent, yeah.
Q: Of course, before we congratulate ourselves on our latter-day enlightenment, we can't entirely say that that sort of thing is entirely done with, either.
A: No. Exactly.
Q: A lot of the book is about the history of the British sitcom and the emergence of working-class, political and feminist themes in comedy. Prior to that, what defined British comedy — as Barbara puts it — was about people not being allowed to have sex whenever they wanted.
A: (Laughs.) Yes, there were an awful lot of West End plays and comedy movies on that subject — people being thwarted from having sex.
Q: Is that a British theme particularly? Sexual repression?
A: (Laughs.) I think it's more about our miserable-ism than sexual repression. We think it's funny to deny people getting what they want. There's a sort of moroseness to British comedy, and I suppose coitus interruptus sort of chimes with that.
Q: One of the first things we learn about Barbara is that she admires Lucille Ball. She doesn't much underline this, but she likes Lucy in part because she seems so American. And when I think about "I Love Lucy," which I watched in reruns as a child, it strikes me as a pretty sexless show. It was mainly about Lucy's desire to be a performer, and the ways in which she was always being denied that — which maybe strikes a chord with Barbara.
A: Yes. What strikes Barbara about "I Love Lucy" is that there was a woman at the center of the show who wanted to be funny. In British television at the time, there weren't the same kind of role models at all. In American comedy, there has been wave after wave of comediennes; it took us a lot longer to get going, primarily because we had role models missing at the beginning of our light entertainment journey.
Q: Is there something in the British character, if one can speak of such a thing, that resists funny women?
A: There doesn't seem to be now. I think at the time, British comedy — as I'm sure American comedy was, too — was run by men. It simply seems to be that they didn't find the right role or vehicle or person to carry that kind of weight. It's much more a kind of historical oddity in England than a resistance to the idea of women being funny.
Q: Somehow in my American stereotype of what British people are like, I must think that in England, it's more important for a woman to be "ladylike," whatever that might entail, and if you're funny, that's not being a "lady."
A: Well, I think that there might be an element of truth in what you say. For a long time, English comedy was very class-based. It was lots of middle-class people, university-educated quite often, who were writing and producing and directing, and the idea of a different kind of woman was probably alien to them, yes.
Q: One of the first issues that Barbara faces in her auditions, and later, is her speech, her accent. She says, "I don't have an accent," to which the response is, "In the theater, that's an accent." You were very much defined, especially in terms of class, by your accent, yes?
A: Certainly that was true at that time. BBC English was a particular southern London middle-class accent, and that was the dominant accent of the time; certainly it was what you were likely to hear on radio and television. All of those things that happened in the '60s with The Beatles, kitchen-sink drama and social-realist films of the early '60s, all went into changing that. But it was a new idea.
Q: If you spoke on television as a person who grew up in Blackpool, for example, it would have seemed not just foreign but, as Barbara puts it, "common."
A: Yes. There wasn't a place for you in the world of the BBC at that time if you spoke like that.
Q: So Barbara and her colleagues — some of whom are gay men — are outsiders, in a way, working from outside the establishment. They're also trailblazers, opening up vistas in a formerly quite constricted cultural landscape.
A: It's their own version of the Swinging '60s, as it were, but they are breaking down barriers, and they're using talent and youthful energy to do it. As for them being outsiders, I think this is what most writers feel anyway, isn't it?
Q: You tell me.
A: Yeah. I don't feel I'm part of the establishment, or that I belong to anything. And I think if you speak to any other writer in pretty much any other medium, they will feel the same way — they'll feel on the outside of something looking in.
Q: Sure, although there is still a certain satisfaction in collaboration.
A: Yes, although one of the very distinctive things about British comedy at the time, and since, is that we've never really used teams of writers in the way they do in American shows. It tends to be one or two people who write everything on a show, and this has always been the case. As a result, shows tend to burn out quickly. Even more recently, a lot of shows have only 12 episodes — whereas in America, teams of writers take over and you get five seasons, nine seasons, 12 seasons out of an idea because of the sheer weight of numbers. But it's always been much more ad hoc in British television.
Q: Why is that?
A: Some of it comes from the BBC not being a commercial channel. It thinks more commercially now, but back then, if people didn't want to write more than 12 episodes, then nobody was bothered. There were no advertisers to keep happy. And if a talented writer on board said "I want to do something else," they were allowed to do so.
Q: What was the initial spark that led you to write the novel?
A: Part of it was working a little bit with Rosamund Pike (the British actress recently nominated for an Academy Award for "Gone Girl"), who was in "An Education," and her talking about not being allowed to do comedy very often, because the part she played in the movie was a comic part. Rosamund looks so amazing, but her looks in some way militate somewhat against people thinking that she could be funny. And also I wanted to write something about teams, and collaborative work, which is something I've been involved in a little bit.
Q: You've been a novelist and also worked in collaboration with others on movies and television. Which do you prefer?
A: Whichever one I'm not doing at the time. (Laughs.) Collaborating on a show is wonderful because the director brings something, and the actors bring something else, and everyone is encouraged to jump a little higher than they could otherwise. It's kind of unbeatable. On the other hand, everything you do in movies or television requires somebody's permission. It's a real problem to keep motivated when you know that money is always going to be an issue, and that no one's going to make it unless this person is involved or that person's involved, and then it all collapses and you have to pick up and start again. It drives you nuts. The great freedom of being a novelist is that you don't have to get permission from anybody. Even if your book is never published, it's a book, and you can email it to somebody and say, "Here is my book." But you can never do that with a script, because a script is an unfinished thing.
Q: So the trick, I suppose, is to alternate from one to the other.
A: That's how I intend to do it from now on.
Q: Vive la différence.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based writer and photographer. Follow him on Twitter @KevinNance1.
By Nick Hornby, Riverhead, 455 pages, $27.95
Hornby will appear at 2 p.m., Feb. 7, at the Tivoli Theatre, in Downers Grove. Visit andersonsbookshop.com for details.