Nina Stibbe, David Nicholls, Bridget Christie and others disclose the books that attained them laugh the most

At Freddies by Penelope Fitzgerald

Chosen by David Nicholls

So many of my early see memories commit hysterical laughter. There was Adrian Mole, of course, and Douglas Adamss The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the Monty Python volumes, Woody Allens Without Feathers, Geoffrey Willanss How to Be Topp, Evelyn Waughs Decline and Fall. Books were prized for being sickening or funny or, even better, both, and the promise that a volume would build the reader laugh out loud seemed altogether conceivable. Why not? It happened all the time.

Less so now perhaps, but a volume that consistently represents me laugh is Penelope Fitzgeralds At Freddies, a comic masterpiece from 1982 that really should be better known. Its set in the early 60 s, in a squalid, crumbling theatre academy in Covent Garden, full of terrifyingly precocious child performers and inept, downtrodden teachers, all presided over by the infamous Frieda Freddie Wentworth. Manipulative, enigmatic, sharp-tongued, opinionated, shes an extraordinary comic innovation; imagine Miss Jean Brodie played by Alastair Sim.

But if Freddie predominates both school and novel, theres also a wonderful corroborating direct, and I specially like Pierce Carroll, the inept mentor, well intentioned but only incapable of restraining his class. Theres Boney Lewis, a charming, drunken performer famed for his Napoleon, an off-stage cameo from Nol Coward and a great comic set piece involving a hysterically pretentious production of King John, full of mad performing and mime.

If the idea of a theatre institution comedy sounds worryingly endearing, Fitzgerald evades patho and predictability. Shes clear-eyed about their chances of the underdog and bright at capturing the desperation that lurks behind the smiles and bravado of those on the lower echoes has anyone written about failure so well? Theres a strengthen bitterness to the humour( No excitement can be as pure as the loathing you feel for a child, says Boney ), and melancholy extremely, a sense that catastrophe is never far away; in this regard, the final sheet is fairly memorable. Fitzgerald is rightly celebrated for the great, late historical novels such as The Blue Flower, but she is also a first-class, underrated comedian, even when the humor is played against a backbeat of sadness.

David NichollssUs is published by Hodder.
Nina Stibbes Love, Nina is published by Penguin.
David Lodges The Man Who Wouldnt Get Up and Other Stories issued by Vintage.
Deborah Moggachs Something to Hide is published by Vintage.
John OFarrells Theres Merely Two David Beckhams is published by Black Swan.
The worse countries around the world get, the more we need to chuckle Marina Lewycka. Portrait: Leon Edler Bridget Christies A Book for Her issued by Arrow.
Sebastian Faulkss Where My Heart Used to Beat issued by Vintage.
Jenny Colgans Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery is published by Sphere.
Philip Ardaghs The Grunt on the Run issued by Nosy Crow.
Marina Lewyckas The Lubetkin Legacy issued by Fig Tree.
Shazia Mirzas 2017 humor tour starts in Bath on 19 January.
Lissa Evanss Crooked Heart is published by Black Swan.


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