Nina Stibbe, David Nicholls, Bridget Christie and others discover the books that stirred them laugh the most

At Freddies by Penelope Fitzgerald

Chosen by David Nicholls

So many of my early read remembers commit hysterical laugh. There was Adrian Mole, of course, and Douglas Adamss The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the Monty Python journals, Woody Allens Without Feathers, Geoffrey Willanss How to Be Topp, Evelyn Waughs Decline and Fall. Books were prized for being scandalizing or funny or, even better, both, and the promise that a notebook would realize the reader laugh out loud seemed alone plausible. Why not? It happened all the time.

Less so now perhaps, but a journal that consistently prepares 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 shabby, deteriorating stagecoach institution in Covent Garden, full of terrifyingly precocious child actors and inept, downtrodden coaches, all presided over by the infamous Frieda Freddie Wentworth. Manipulative, mysterious, sharp-tongued, opinionated, shes an extraordinary comic innovation; imagine Miss Jean Brodie give full play to Alastair Sim.

But if Freddie dominates both institution and fiction, theres also a wonderful substantiating casting, and I particularly like Pierce Carroll, the inept lecturer, well intentioned but altogether incapable of restraining his class. Theres Boney Lewis, a charming, drunken actor famed for his Napoleon, an off-stage cameo from Nol Coward and a great comic set piece committing a hysterically ostentatious production of King John, full of mad acting and mime.

If the idea of a theatre academy slapstick seems worryingly amiable, Fitzgerald evades nostalgium and predictability. Shes clear-eyed about their chances of the underdog and bright at capturing the desperation that lurks behind the smiles and swagger of those on the lower resounds has anyone written about collapse so well? Theres a strengthen bitterness to the witticism( No passion can be as pure as the hate you feel for a child, says Boney ), and melancholy more, a sense that adversity is never far away; in this respect, the final page is quite unforgettable. Fitzgerald is rightly celebrated for the largest, late historic romances such as The Blue Flower, but she is also a first-class, underrated jester, even when the comedy 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 issued by Vintage.
John OFarrells Theres Simply Two David Beckhams is published by Black Swan.
The worse “the worlds” goes, the more we need to laugh Marina Lewycka. Illustration: Leon Edler Bridget Christies A Book for Her is published by Arrow.
Sebastian Faulkss Where My Heart Use to Beat is published by Vintage.
Jenny Colgans Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery is published by Sphere.
Philip Ardaghs The Grunts on the Run is published by Nosy Crow.
Marina Lewyckas The Lubetkin Legacy is published by Fig Tree.
Shazia Mirzas 2017 comedy tour starts in Bath on 19 January.
Lissa Evanss Crooked Heart issued by Black Swan.


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