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

At Freddies by Penelope Fitzgerald

Chosen by David Nicholls

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

Less so now perhaps, but a notebook that systematically attains me laugh is Penelope Fitzgeralds At Freddies, a comic masterpiece from 1982 that really should be better known. Its established in the early 60 s, in a seedy, disintegrating stagecoach institution in Covent Garden, full of terrifyingly precocious child performers and incompetent, downtrodden coaches, all presided over by the infamous Frieda Freddie Wentworth. Manipulative, enigmatic, sharp-tongued, opinionated, shes an extraordinary comic innovation; imagine Miss Jean Brodie give full play to Alastair Sim.

But if Freddie dominates both school and tale, theres also a wonderful supporting direct, and I especially like Pierce Carroll, the incompetent teacher, well intentioned but altogether incapable of verifying his class. Theres Boney Lewis, a delightful, drunken actor famed for his Napoleon, an off-stage cameo from Nol Coward and a great comic set piece implying a hysterically ostentatious production processes King John, full of mad play and mime.

If the idea of a stage institution humor announces worryingly endearing, Fitzgerald sidesteps schmaltz and predictability. Shes clear-eyed about their chances of the underdog and brilliant at captivating the desperation that hides behind the smiles and bravado of those on the lower calls has anyone written about flop so well? Theres a fortify bitterness to the mood( No spirit can be as pure as the hatred you feel for a child, says Boney ), and melancholy extremely, a sense that adversity is never far away; in this respect, the final page is quite unforgettable. Fitzgerald is rightly celebrated for the great, late historic novels such as The Blue Flower, but she is also a first-class, underrated comedian, even when the comedy is played against a backbeat of sadness.

David NichollssUs issued 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 Merely Two David Beckhams is published by Black Swan.
The worse the world get, the more we need to chortle Marina Lewycka. Illustration: Leon Edler Bridget Christies A Book for Her issued by Arrow.
Sebastian Faulkss Where My Heart Utilized to Beat is published by Vintage.
Jenny Colgans Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery issued by Sphere.
Philip Ardaghs The Grunt on the Run is published by Nosy Crow.
Marina Lewyckas The Lubetkin Legacy issued by Fig Tree.
Shazia Mirzas 2017 slapstick tour begin in Bath on 19 January.
Lissa Evanss Crooked Heart is published by Black Swan.


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