❉ Ange Chan reviews UKTV’s new three-part behind the scenes documentary, which premiers tonight.
“Victoria wrote the whole thing on her own with no input from any third party. There was no team of writers, editors or input from the BBC at all. The writing process would involve having the first read through of an episode on a Monday, and by Friday they would perform it in front of an audience and Victoria would rewrite it, getting it all ‘just so’.”
To mark its twentieth anniversary UKTV brings us dinnerladies diaries, a three part series focusing on dinnerladies, Victoria Wood’s heartwarming sitcom about the day-to-day workings of a factory canteen. Victoria recalled, “It was centred in the canteen area. An enclosed world to corral the team. Similar to a stage set. In fact deliberately like a stage, so the actors would come and go”.
Having written a plethora of sketches, plays, songs, and shows Victoria wanted to write a sitcom of a team situation, whilst encapsulating the warmth of the dynamics of the characters. Wood wanted to underpin the sitcom with the mundanity of the working day, and she used every word to find the joy of the routine which we all go through in our daily lives.
The three-parter includes archive material, out-takes and unseen footage which are all as equally funny as the finished product. Victoria wrote the whole thing on her own with no input from any third party. There was no team of writers, editors or input from the BBC at all. The writing process would involve having the first read through of an episode on a Monday, and by Friday they would perform it in front of an audience and Victoria would rewrite it, getting it all ‘just so’, working through the night to deliver the finished product for a Saturday when it was filmed in front of another live studio audience. The writing and rewrites for this groundbreaking programme were legendary. Victoria was nothing if not a perfectionist.
Victoria was notoriously a demanding taskmaster but she was incredibly hardworking herself too, and according to the actors, she was always irritatingly right. Each week the episodes layered and layered the back story of each of the characters, episode on episode so the viewer learned a little more of each character the more they watched. Consequently they were drawn in more and more as the series progressed.
In the dinnerladies diaries programmes, there is previously unseen archive footage of Wood talking about her writing process and characterisation and why she wrote things the way she did. Filmed in front of a live audience, there was no warm up man. VW did that herself. “It seemed daft to pay another stand up comedian, when that’s what I do,” she said. “I could take the opportunity to introduce the characters to the audience, as I knew them and the story the best.”
She went on, “I wanted the sitcom to be dense in all aspects, the storyline, the characters, their relationships and interactions, so it would lend itself to being watched over and over. The viewer would then find something new in it each time.”
Victoria was extremely foresighted in that she documented everything on dinnerladies with all her notes, scripts and final lines plus behind the scene photographs, including a lovely photo of Victoria eating her favourite meal of egg and chips.
The actors recall how dinnerladies was a masterclass in delivery and timing which was full of throwaway comedic lines. Thousands of them, which helped to make it both funny and iconic.
The simmering romantic relationship between Andrew Dunne and Victoria’s character was a thread running through the entire series. At the very end of the second series in 1999 they of course end up together. It was a lovely to see a tender love story develop on screen. In the archive material, Wood says “it was a totally unlikely relationship but they have a bond and he relies on her and she’s obviously got a thing for him”.
The way the women in the canteen shared everything, was very real just like when women get together in life. They talked about sex and relationships and VW wrote frankly how women talk in a very relatable way.
Similarly the innuendo was cleverly introduced by way of Stan and his retractable bollards, and who can forget that infamous edgy line “…answer me one question love. Where’s my Clint?” Duncan Preston who played Stan, met Victoria in 1981 when he worked with Julie Walters and further worked with Victoria throughout the eighties and nineties. The character of Stan was very ‘just so’. He always wanted to do things the right way. His catchphrase was “my father was a desert rat…”. He was always talking about his retractable bollards (“a boon to modern parking solutions”) and “female women” and getting his dander up.
The third episode of the trip-down-Memory-Lane series features some of the supplementary characters including Bernard Wriggly as Bob, and Sue Devany as “the twelve rounds of white toast” girl aka Jane.
Celia Imrie was the scatty Human Resources manager Phillipa Moorcroft, who summed up “posh annoying, middle-class southern people. She was constantly apologetic and ineffectual”, according to comedian Jo Brand. “She was a perfect counter-point to the Northerness of the overall feel of the programme”.
Dinnerladies also featured British TV icons Dora Bryan, Eric Sykes and Thora Hird in one episode, as parents of the characters in the “bring your parents to work” episode. Eric Sykes reportedly asked Victoria if she wanted the role “to be played Northern”. “Um yeah of course,” she said. “Oh I can’t remember how to do a Northern accent” he replied. To which Victoria replied, “Eric, you’re from Oldham!”
Sadly after two series dinnerladies was to come to an end. The canteen’s demise was cleverly written into the programme by saying the it was to close, so the viewer genuinely felt it was time to get off the rollercoaster. Bren’s Mum, Petula died, and it all came to a very natural end. Sixteen episodes seemed like the right amount of time to get Victoria’s aim of “seeing if she could do it”.
To commemorate the two series Victoria had personalised plates made for all the cast. The first one was egg and chips theme and the other was apple pie and custard which they treasure to this day.
The series dinnerladies diaries is a bittersweet trip along memory lane. Twenty years later the series still has its fans, with a new fan base emerging even now in 2018. It reminds us what a rare talent Victoria Wood was at whatever writing she turned her hand to. She is very much missed but lives on through her work which will always stand the rest of time because it reflects real life and is relatable. And for that reason she’ll always live on, in our collective consciousness.
❉ ‘dinnerladies diaries’ starts on Gold starts 14 March 2018.
❉ Ange Chan is a poet and novelist. Her fourth poetry collection “Fame; What’s Your Name?” and her second novel “Baby, Can You Hear Me?” were both published in paperback and Kindle in 2016. Her latest poetry collection “Songs of Sorrow and Heartbreak” was published in October 2017 and her third novel “Champagne Flutes and Pixie Boots” will be published in 2018.