Meet the creators of Sky’s new original comedy drama Funny Woman, Nick Hornby and Morwenna Banks
The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Hermans Hermits are all topping the charts. On Blackpool beach Barbara Parker has just been crowned the town’s beauty queen, but she’s got bigger dreams than ribbons and sticks of rock. Without a plan or a penny in her pocket, Barbara sets off to London to make her dreams come true. Barbara intends to shake up the male-dominated world of the British sitcom with her inimitable sense of humour.
It was back in 2014 that Nick Hornby, the author best known for his comic best-sellers, High Fidelity and About a Boy, released Funny Girl. The novel follows the trials and tribulations of Barbara as she navigates new-found fame after winning a part in a sitcom. Paying tribute to a golden era of British telly, the novel was full of Hornby’s trademark balance of pop culture, memorable characters, narrative panache, and heartfelt humour.
Now the novel has been adapted by Hornby and writer, creator, and actor, Morwenna Banks into a six-part limited series to be released on February 9, 2023 on Sky Max and NOW.
Hornby rightly recognises that much of the comedy we consume today was born in the early to mid-60s, when a generation of bright, young men and women burst onto the scene. “They were more or less allowed to do what they wanted,” says Hornby. “It always felt like a time when there were these burning talents, and they were allowed to shine as brightly as they possibly could”.
At the heart of the book and show is Barbara, played by Gemma Arterton (Tamara Drewe, Summerland). Barbara is a working-class woman employed in a factory that makes sticks of rock. Barbara’s character isn’t based on any single comedian of the age, but was inspired in part by the real-life American comic Lucille Ball of I Love Lucy. Hornby felt we never had a story like Ball’s in the UK, so he created one.
From Fever Pitch in 1997 to the noughties hits High Fidelity and About A Boy, Hornby is no stranger to having his work adapted. He was also behind the Oscar-nominated scripts for An Education and Brooklyn. Yet, despite writing for both the big and the small screen, Hornby still prefers to avoid adapting his own work. “I’ve taken the view that I don’t want to adapt any of my books because I’ve spent too long on that material already,” says Hornby.
Enter Cambridge Footlights alumni Morwenna Banks. Banks is behind the adaptation of her radio play, Goodbye, retitled Miss You Already, starring Toni Collette and Drew Barrymore, about a woman and her family coming to terms with a breast cancer diagnosis, and recently wrote for Season 2 of Slow Horses for Apple TV+. Audiences will also know Banks for her myriad of TV and film roles, starring in the likes of Saxondale with Steve Coogan, Damned and, of course, as the voice of Mummy Pig in Peppa Pig. “I love Morwenna, she’s such a talented woman,” says Hornby. “I told her right from the beginning - anything you want to do is fine by me.”
For Banks, Hornby’s novel told a story she could recognise from her own experiences. “I related to it so much in terms of being a woman and a writer-performer, working in comedy. There were elements of Barbara’s journey that truly resonated.”
Part of the appeal for Banks was that she is a keen history-of-comedy nerd, as evidenced by the book that she co-wrote with Amanda Swift, ‘The Joke’s on Us’ which traced the history of female comics from the music halls of London to the present day. The book included the trailblazing women of the 1960s, examples she drew on in her own take on Barbara.
Banks was loyal to Hornby’s book but, for the TV show, made the changes necessary for an episodic comic-drama. Banks added a few new characters and expanded the plot to reflect the tumultuous period of transition. “The 1960s were a time of revolution. However, many divisive and restrictive laws and legislations, as well as personal prejudices, were still very much in place,” she says. Her script expands on Hornby’s novel by creating a narrative about acceptance and acknowledgement of people who faced prejudice or who weren’t typically in the limelight. That includes regional actors like Barbara herself, Dennis (played by Arsher Ali) the director of the fictional sitcom she stars in, or the writers of the sitcom Bill (Matthew Beard) and Tony (Leo Bill) who cannot be open about their sexuality.
As well as writing the show, Banks also stars as Patsy, the wife of Barbara’s agent, Brian (Rupert Everett). “Her backstory is that she’s an ex-actress married to Brian Debenham, and they run a shonky agency,” says Banks. “Patsy knows that Barbara is something special, and she’s a bit of a feminist, she just doesn’t quite know it yet.”
Even though she was eager to reimagine this story for the screen, Banks admits that she was nervous about adapting Hornby’s work. “When I take on an adaptation, it has to be something I can get inside and write authentically about,” she says. However, from the moment he read the script, Hornby felt that Banks had achieved her aim… with bells on. “I could tell instantly that Morwenna loved the characters as much as I did when I was writing the book,” says Hornby.
Funny Woman is on Sky Max and NOW from February 9, 2023.