Gemma Arterton set to star in Nick Hornby's Funny Girl for Sky

ExclusiveThursday 22nd July 2021, 2:01pm by Jay Richardson

Gemma Arterton

Gemma Arterton is lined up to star in Sky's adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel Funny Girl, British Comedy Guide can exclusively reveal.

Set in an alternative history of British light entertainment in which the nation falls in love with Sophie Straw, a Lucille Ball-like figure, the televisual 2014 novel also features two Tony Hancock-obsessed writers, Tony and Bill, with the trio drawn together to make a sitcom pilot in the 1960s.

Adapted by Absolutely star Morwenna Banks, whose writing credits include Damned, Up The Women and Ruddy Hell! It's Harry & Paul, six hour-long episodes have been ordered.

Directing is Oliver Parker, who previously worked with Arterton on the revived St Trinian's film franchise, and whose résumé includes the 2016 Dad's Army movie, Johnny English Reborn and The Private Life Of Samuel Pepys, starring Steve Coogan.

Funny Girl is being produced by Potboiler Television (The Last King Of Scotland, Generation Kill). The production company has routinely collaborated with, and is part-owned by, Lionsgate, the co-financiers of Damned, Channel 4's social work sitcom that Banks created with Jo Brand], which also starred Alan Davies, Isy Suttie, Kevin Eldon and Lolly Adefope.

Gemma Bovery star Arterton's previous forays into television comedy include a 2014 episode of Inside No. 9; playing the grown-up Jessica Spencer in a 2016 Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em special for Sport Relief and, more recently, starring as Marilyn Monroe, alongside James Purefoy as film director Billy Wilder, in a 2018 Sky Arts Urban Myth about the making of classic Hollywood comedy Some Like It Hot.

Rival channel Amazon Prime has enjoyed massive success with the multiple Golden Globe and Emmy-winning The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, set in late 1950s and early 1960s New York and an alternative, arguably feminist reimagining of US comedy history borrowing from the life of Joan Rivers. Sky will be hoping that Funny Girl attracts similar acclaim for its British-based tale.

Hornby's novel begins with Barbara Parker winning Miss Blackpool 1964. But having grown up revering Tony Hancock, Morecambe & Wise, Phil Silvers, and above all, Lucille Ball, the doyenne of US sitcom in the 1950s and 60s, Parker rejects the life of a beauty queen and moves to London.

Working on the cosmetics counter of a department store, she meets a theatrical agent who gets her an audition for a BBC sitcom pilot based around the home life of a pair of newlyweds, Barbara (and Jim), and prepares for stardom by renaming herself Sophie Straw.

Writing at the time of the novel's publication, The Observer called Funny Girl "a paean to the golden age of light entertainment", while noting that "it feels like it is a film in waiting, eager to shrug off the formal constraints of the novel".

Comedian Viv Groskop meanwhile, reviewing in The Independent, declared it an "irritatingly genius idea". Interestingly, she added that she had interviewed Hornby about the book. Asking him who he had in mind to play Sophie Straw on screen, he replied: "It would have to be a 21-year-old unknown."

26th August update

Sky has now confirmed the six-part series: "Gemma Arterton stars as Barbara Parker - the force of nature who takes London by storm. Her journey from Blackpool beauty queen to comedy superstar and nation's sweetheart is set during the cultural explosion of the 1960s."

Clare-Hope Ashitey (Riviera), Arsher Ali (Four Lions) and Alexa Davies (Dead Pixels) will also star, with more cast to be confirmed.

Gemma Arterton says: "It's a heart-warming story of an ambitious woman with a dream of making people laugh - it's going to be something special. It's an honour to be working with such an incredible team and be reunited with my first ever director, Oliver Parker."

Director of Comedy for Sky Studios, Jon Mountague, comments: "With Morwenna Banks' brilliant script, this was the perfect opportunity to bring a contemporary take on this inspiring story. Funny, smart and revealing - exactly what a Sky Original comedy should be, and we can't wait."

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