❉ The comedy legacy of Victoria Wood remembered, one year on.
“Victoria was part of the fabric of our nation, holding a mirror up to the ridiculousness of everything deemed to be British. Her humour was grounded in everyday life.”
It’s been a whole year since we lost the comedic genius that was Victoria Wood. She left behind an enormous legacy in her vast body of work, from Wood and Walters right through to her more recent dramatic work such as That Day We Sang, the musical starring Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton. She was part of the fabric of our nation, holding a mirror up to the ridiculousness of everything deemed to be British.
Wood started her career on light entertainment talent-spotting show New Faces in 1974, making her debut alongside other ’80s stars-to-be Les Dennis and Lenny Henry. She didn’t win the show but evidently made something of an impact, as she was later invited to perform her humorous songs on BBC’s That’s Life programme, often satirising subjects of the day.
In the mid 1980s on the back of her appearances on That’s Life, she worked steadily to build her career and established herself as a comedy force to be reckoned with. As one of the few female comedians of the time, she established her own brand of humour and went on to bigger and better things as her career progressed.
I remember getting instantly hooked into Victoria’s particular brand of humour in 1988, via An Audience With Victoria Wood. Watching that ITV special the very first time tapped into my love of observational comedy which Victoria did so well. Much of her humour was grounded in everyday life and included references to quintessentially British culture, and satirising the social classes. The song for which she’s probably most famous for, The Ballad of Barry and Freda was first heard on this performance alongside the forgotten but equally sublime Things Would Never Have Worked.
The hour long special An Audience With… was part of a regular series in London Weekend Television’s programming which had previously included stars such as Ken Dodd, Kenneth Williams, Billy Connolly, Dame Edna and Joan Collins. It was a huge accolade so relatively early on in Vic’s career and it earned her second BAFTA – her first being for her TV show two years earlier Victoria Wood As Seen On TV, which introduced the viewer to the genius spoof of Acorn Antiques which later went on to be a successful West End stage show, and the fabulous Kitty as acted out by the wonderful Patricia Routledge.
“She is the only comedian to have sold out the Royal Albert Hall. She also holds the records for both the longest run of shows by a female headline artist, and the longest run of shows by any comedian.”
A less celebrated but no less important regular feature of As Seen On TV was its filmed ‘mockumentaries’, deadly accurate parodies of the fly-on-the-wall style of television journalism pioneered by the long running current affairs series Man Alive (1962-1981). As savage as they were perceptive, they not only betrayed the sharp, acidic ‘bite’ always present behind Wood’s deceptively cosy exterior (On Campus and Swimming The Channel are pitch-black as well as laden with pathos, with the latter suggesting a familiarity with the Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch Ron Obvious) but also predated more acclaimed examples of the genre such as People Like Us, The Thick of It, The Office and The Day Today’s Swimming Pool and Office sketches.
Following the phenomenal success of An Audience With.., Victoria wrote and starred in Victoria Wood Presents, a set of six different comedy plays with topics ranging from getting to the airport for a delayed flight, a health farm, video dating, appearing on a daytime TV show, hiking in the Dales and a Christmas party where Victoria turned out to be unwittingly the main source of the evening’s entertainment.
Victoria Wood Presents showed yet another side to her versatility as a writer and performer, as self-contained half-hour comedy plays rather than sketches, with Victoria playing a version of herself and making frequent asides to camera (“I knew Judith Chalmers before she was orange”).
As with Victoria Wood As Seen On TV, Victoria Wood Presents is noteworthy for its strong, female-led casts, featuring many Wood regulars – Julie Walters, Anne Reid, Celia Imrie, Lil Roughley, Selina Cadell, Susie Blake and Jim Broadbent – alongside memorable guest appearances from household names Joan Sims, Patricia Hodge and Una Stubbs as well as early appearances from Jane Horrocks (Absolutely Fabulous, Life Is Sweet), Liza Tarbuck (Watching, Linda Green) and Julia St John (Brittas Empire, The Grand).
“She was never a selfish comic, never keeping all the best gags for herself. She was well-loved by her peers for her altruism, and for sharing out the laughs where they were most appropriate. It is one of the truly remarkable things she is remembered for.”
The six Victoria Wood Presents scripts were published by Methuen (the literary home of such great voices of British wit as Sue Townsend, Fry & Laurie and the Python team) as Mens Sana In Thingummy Doodah and other nuggets of homely fun. This was Victoria’s third collection of TV scripts, following Barmy and Up To You, Porky. As with the Python team a decade earlier, these books allowed devoted fans to commit Wood’s eminently quotable material to memory before her TV work was widely available on home video and when terrestrial repeats were scarce.
1992 saw Victoria and friends given a prized slot as one of the jewels in BBC One’s Christmas Day schedule with Victoria Wood’s All Day Breakfast. The fifty minute special, spoofing This Morning With Richard & Judy, was her first sketch-based show since As Seen On TV, with many of her regular co-stars joining in the fun. A highlight was The Mall, a mickey-take of the BBC’s infamously troubled Euro-soap Eldorado, featuring the return of Acorn Antiques‘ Mrs Overall.
Away from the small screen, Victoria’s tours were massively successful, with an unprecedented sell-out run at the Royal Albert Hall in 1993, returning again on 24 September 1996. She performed at the Albert a total of 47 times and holds the records for both the longest run of shows by a female headline artist, and the longest run of shows by any comedian.
In the late 1990s Victoria turned her hand to another television comedy genre, in the form of sitcom series dinnerladies (small ‘d’ and all one word; very impotent, sorry, important) which was set in the kitchens of a Northern factory. She gathered her well-trusted team of actors around her (Duncan Preston, Anne Reid, Celia Imrie and Julie Walters) as well as Coronation Street actresses Shobna Gulati and Thelma Barlow, a young Maxine Peake as the incorrigible Twinkle, and in the role of Victoria’s love interest Catering Manager Tony, Andrew Dunn.
She wrote some incredible comedy throughout dinnerladies’ two series, redrafting scripts through rehearsals and camera run-throughs right up to the wire, with dedicated perfectionism. She wrote pure comedy gold for the entire cast; the great one-liners were shared out equally across the board. She was well-loved by her peers for her altruism, and for sharing out the laughs where they were most appropriate. She was never a selfish comic, never keeping all the best gags for herself. It is one of the truly remarkable things she is remembered for.
The show won “Best New TV Comedy” at the 1999 British Comedy Awards and the Rose d’Or Press Award in the same year, and was named “Best TV Comedy” at the British Comedy Awards in 2000.
Soon after dinnerladies Victoria wrote her first feature length dramatic piece, Pat and Margaret. Wood’s character, a down-to-earth cafeteria waitress from a small Northern town is reunited with her snooty long-lost sister, a Hollywood diva played by long-time friend and collaborator Julie Walters, via a Surprise Surprise-type show,and it was filled with Victoria’s customary blend of pathos and humour. Who can forget Thora Hird’s infamous line, “A sex life? Where have you been having a sex life? Not on the eiderdown?!'”
In 2006, Wood went on to write and star in the TV drama Housewife, 49 based on the life of Nella Last, which chronicled the diary entries of an ordinary housewife who lived in Barrow-in-Furness during the Second World War. Wood won two more BAFTAs for both her acting and writing of this drama. A rare achievement to have attained accolades for both areas in the same body of work.
For the 2011 Manchester International Festival, Wood wrote and directed That Day We Sang, a musical set in 1969 with flashbacks to 1929. It tells the story of a middle-aged couple who find love after meeting on a TV programme about a choir they both sang in forty years previously. It was later televised for the BBC.
Wood continued to appear on TV in a number of guises, from being a contestant on The Great British Bake Off for Comic Relief (of which she was a great ambassador), winning Star Baker for her efforts, to numerous radio and TV shows and a plethora of documentaries mostly across the BBC.
During this period, she gave a memorable performance as Sadie Bartholomew, Eric Morecambe’s mother, in Eric and Ernie, a 2011 television film produced by BBC Wales, based on the early career of Morecambe and Wise. Its cast included Daniel Rigby (Flowers), Jim Moir (aka Vic Reeves) and Reece Shearsmith, who had cast her in The League of Gentleman’s Apocalypse, the 2005 big screen spin-off from the cult series, as Queen Mary II in film-within-a-film The King’s Evil.
Her final TV appearance was Sky TV’s adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ Fungus The Bogeyman, co-starring with Timothy Spall and broadcast Christmas 2015.
Throughout her astounding career she not only won fourteen BAFTAs but was also awarded both an OBE and CBE by The Queen, as well as being awarded an honorary Doctorate by the University of Sunderland. She received many awards and accolades throughout her career which only served to emphasise Victoria’s sheer talent.
After her death there was much mourning from the entertainment business, with several tribute shows celebrating her talent and genius, proving once again how loved and respected she was by her peers.
She is much-missed by both those who knew and loved her, and those of us like me, that adored her sense of humour, her empathy and pathos, dramatic and comedic timing and sometimes, just plain silliness.
RIP Victoria. You will never be forgotten.
❉ Six-part series Our Friend Victoria will air this month on BBC One marking the one-year anniversary of Victoria Wood’s death.
❉ Penny Andrews’ book ‘dinnerladies’, the first indepth study of the BBC sitcom, will be published by Obverse Books in 2017.
❉ 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 third novel will be published in 2017.