Victoria Wood: True Talent Remembered
Victoria Wood was an excellent comedy performer and an even better writer. She showed in a man’s comedy world, true talent can rise to the top and entertain us all. Sarah Millican describing her as ‘A true comic icon’. Her death at the age of 62, says the Times, stunned her family and a “nation of fans”. Marcus Brigstocke commented ‘Victoria Wood was a truly brilliant & funny writer & a joyful, richly talented performer’.
She was admired for her comic skills in observing culture, and in satirising social classes. Wood had a great ability of taking the ordinary aspects of life and making them funny or showing us the absurd side. The best female writer, comedian the UK has produced, a complete inspiration to all female comics. Writer Beth Cleavy said ‘I’m without words. Inspired me in so many ways’.
Victoria Wood was born in Prestwick, Lancashire into a middle class family, Wood knew from an early age she wanted to be a performer even though her mother, she once said, “had no sense of humour”. She was a student at Birmingham University, and entered the TV Talent show ‘New Faces’ (1974) and won, appearing later in an all winners show with among others Lenny Henry. Wood went on to use her musical, writing talents as a novelty act on the BBC’s consumer affairs programme ‘That’s Life!’ in 1976 – one of the most-watched programmes on TV at the time. Victoria established her particular brand of comedy in front of millions of viewers, who came to love her comic songs and piano playing. Jack Dee said ‘I feel privileged to have known and worked with the great Victoria Wood. Unique and truly brilliant’
She will best be remembered for her outstanding work with her friend, talented actress Julie Walters who was devastated stating “The loss of her is incalculable’. They appeared in several TV comedy shows and dramas together, all written by Wood. The two first met in the early 1970s, then again in 1978 when they appeared together in the same theatre revue, ‘In at The Death’. Its success led to the commission of Wood’s first play, ‘Talent’, which won her a most promising new writer award and led to Peter Eckersley, the head of drama at Granada Television, inviting her to create a version for TV, starring Walters. Three more plays followed, which again inspired Eckersley to approach Wood to create and star in a comedy TV sketch show – ‘Wood & Walters’.
It was a move to the BBC that gave her star status with the BAFTA wining ‘Victoria Wood – As seen on TV’ (1985 – 87) a comedy sketch show series starring Julie Walters and a team of talented performers Celia Imrie, Duncan Preston, Susie Blake and Patricia Routledge. Victoria opened each show with a short stand up comedy monologue, we were then greeted with a bunch of excellent original sketch ideas and a well written musical item.
The work was fresh, original and incredbly entertaining with some of the most recognised and iconic sketches in British comedy, including ‘Two Soups’ (in which Walters, as an elderly waitress, takes too long to deliver two bowls of soup to a couple of frustrated customers) and regular features like Acorn Antiques (a parody of ‘Crossroads’ low-budget soap opera), as well as musical performances by Wood including her most well-known number, The Ballad of Barry and Freda (“Let’s Do It”). The series led to spin-off script books, video tapes, TV specials and DVD’s. It won a BAFTA Award and, in 1996, it was awarded all-time Favourite Comedy Series by the BBC itself.
The series highlighted Wood’s marvelous comic abilities and underlined the range of acting talents Julia Walters possessed in a wonderful support cast that Victoria stayed loyal to in many of her other TV ventures and indeed a future ‘Acorn Antiques’ musical which played in the West End (2005) and subsequently toured. Victoria Wood went on the road in many sell out solo stand up tours, playing to packed theatres and breaking records at a long series of dates at The Royal Albert Hall in London further reaching DVD sales.
She went on to write the critically acclaimed sit-com ‘Dinnerladies’ for the BBC (1998-2000, two series 16 episodes in total). In a TV South Bank show (ITV) interview she believed the sit-coms ‘The Office’ and ‘The Royal family’ had surpassed it at the time, such was her respect for other writers and artistes. Ricky Gervais described her as ‘brilliant … innovative, funny and down to earth’.
It was her modesty which also appealed to the public, rather than a show business life style, a topic she explored in the award winning BBC drama ‘Pat and Margaret’ (1994) which follows two sisters Margaret, a lowly cafetria cook, and Pat, a successful actress in the United States, after they are reunited on a television programme after spending 27 years apart. The contrast of their attitudes to their individual situations brought comedy and tears. As Wood once said “Life’s not fair, is it? Some of us drink champagne in the fast lane, and some of us eat our sandwiches by the loose chippings on the A597.”
The quote was typical of how she often constructed a one-line gag. Victoria would be specific and name the place, article or brand making the experience more exact for her audience. For example –
“I once went to one of those parties where everyone throws their car keys into the middle of the room. I don’t know who got my moped but I’ve been driving that Peugeot for years.”
She says Peugeot rather than a car, making the joke far more personal. Also when she was talking about Benetton shops .. enjoys going in and unfolding things. Her gag below on her size in different shop illustrates the point further
‘I know I’m different sizes in different shops, 16 in some shops, 18 in some shops. In Gap, I’m only a size 12 because they’re American. In Marks and Spencer’s, I’m only a size three because they don’t want to upset anybody. In Topshop, my hips set off an alarm as I go through’.
Her writing style has also been compared to that of Alan Bennett, both northern in upbringing and keen observers of people. Yet Bennett never specifically wrote gags, in fact he hated them. As Critic Mark Duguid said of Wood “certainly shares Bennett’s gift for characterisation and his ear for comic but natural dialogue”.
The respect she had in the way she conducted her life, protecting her children from the media (as best she could) and did a lot of charity work, visiting Ethiopia in 1990 and Zimbabwe in 1998 for Comic Relief. Victoria once topped a poll of People You’d Most Like To Live Next Door To, trouncing the Queen Mum in the process.
Phillip Schofield revealed how Victoria Wood once helped out with his wife’s rent, when she was struggling for money as a young production assistant. Stephanie Lowe was working as a PA on Victoria Wood ‘As Seen On TV’ when the comedian offered to step in and help. Speaking on This Morning, Schofield said: ‘At that time in her life Steph was very young and just starting out. They were all sat around discussing if Steph could afford her rent or whatever it was. Victoria said to her “No, I’ll sort you out, it’s fine”. She lent her some money which Steph paid back – but she said “No no, it’s absolutely fine, don’t worry”. So really such a sweet and kind, lovely lady.’
She also won the Great Comic Relief Bake Off in 2015.
Wood also made documentaries including Victoria’s Empire about the British Empire, one on the Tea industry and Victoria Wood’s Big Fat Documentary about the diet industry. She was awarded an OBE in 1997 and awarded a CBE in 2008.
Victoria married magician Geoffrey Durham, known as the Great Soprendo, in 1980 – and divorced in 2002. While together she creiteded him with giving her confidence, and she was devastated and shocked when the marriage fell apart.She is survived by her two children, Grace and Henry.
Matthew Willetts MA is the Director of Comicus who has over 35 years experience in television, film, theatre, and comedy club/cabaret entertainment, working as a performer, screenwriter, producer and agent. He lectured at Southampton Solent University in Comedy, Screenwriting, Television, Theatre & Radio. Matthew can sometimes be seen and heard on TV & Radio and often quoted in the national press and media publications. As well as speaking regularly at festivals and industry conferences, he has been a judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Montreux Television Festival.