‘Victoria Wood: A Tribute’, BFI Southbank

❉ Julie Walters, Maxine Peake and Piers Wenger shared their memories of the late, great Victoria Wood.

Almost one year since the death of the undisputed queen of British comedy Victoria Wood, the British Film Institute and Radio Times together, hosted an event to celebrate the work of this comedic genius at the British Film Institute on London’s Southbank as part of their Television Festival over the weekend of 7-9 April 2017.

The sold out event was presented by actors Julie Walters, Maxine Peake, and Controller of BBC Drama Commissioning, Executive Producer of Eric & Ernie and personal friend, Piers Wenger.  Peter O’Connell from Radio 4 lead the discussion panel, who collectively shared their memories of Victoria, and discussed some unforgettable screen moments from Wood’s brilliant career spanning from the early days in the 1970s, right through to more recent times.

The event was introduced by Ben Preston, the Editor of the Radio Times for the last seven years.  He started off with the anecdote of once visiting Victoria at her home in North London, and being taken to her attic/office to find the walls adorned with framed covers of the Radio Times. She loved everything to do with television, Julie Walters later confirmed, it was her life. She just loved the soaps, the quiz shows, dramas and crap daytimeTV!

Wood had an astonishing back catalogue of work, which spanned TV in various guises, including dramatic theatre and stand-up comedy, creating unforgettable characters which gently mocked the British sense of being.  Much of her observational humour was grounded in everyday life, and included clever and pertinent references to what we know to be quintessentially British culture, as well as gently satirising the social classes.

Maxine was asked what her thoughts on Victoria were and whilst admitting she didn’t know her that well, she will forever be grateful to Victoria for launching her acting career.  Maxine spoke about her first audition whilst still at drama school. She’d just signed up with an agent who’d got Maxine the audition for dinnerladies not thinking for one moment she’d be offered the part, and viewing it as good overall experience.  She was thrilled to be auditioning for the part of Twinkle aka Twink, the youngest member of the canteen whose blatantly sloppy behaviour, poor time-keeping and couldn’t give a hoot attitude made her a key member of the dinnerladies ensemble.and was astonished and humbled to have been offered the role.  The relationship between her and Dolly played by Thelma Barlow was particularly funny; straight laced, aspiring middle class Dolly versus very working class, thrown together Twink.

Maxine regaled how Victoria had never commented on Maxine’s larger size at that time but did offer her the advice of don’t get typecast. You’re a large, blonde, gobby Northerner, it would be very easy for you to fall into that trap. Maxine took the advice to heart and after dinnerladies set about losing weight which subsequently garnered her key roles in theatre and television. She felt she had a lot to thank Victoria for in that regard.

Julie was on form, and in my view is equally as funny as Victoria was. Her glib one liners which punctuated the event made the whole thing punchy and upbeat. One of her first anecdotes was how they used to have to pee in pint pots backstage at the Bush Theatre when they first started working together back in the 1970s, because once a show had started you couldn’t get to the loo at the back of the theatre.

Peter remarked how Victoria had once told him that working with Julie in those early days gave Victoria her voice she knew through Julie that she could be funny.  The joke that apparently instigated this comment was :

“Well, where are you in the menstrual cycle?”

To which came the reply “Taurus”

Julie was completely unaware of this fact and seemed genuinely touched by the remark.

Julie’s next point was that she was still processing the fact that Victoria had died.  Victoria’s passing seems inconceivable, even one year on. Everyone I’ve spoken to about her says two things; she was utterly brilliant and how much, as a nation, we all collectively miss her.  Her clever, gentle, sometimes subtle brand of humour was truly unique.  She was famously influenced by Joyce Grenfell and she took that type of observational humour and made it her own. As well as being the queen of comedy she was a playwright, director, actor and writer,  often giving the biggest laughs to her colleagues rather than keeping the best lines for herself. She once explained that this wasn’t wholly an altruistic gesture but more a case of, if something works better by another character delivering that key line, then so be it.  This can be viewed in all its glory in dinnerladies where the majority of the laughs come from the different relationships between the characters.

The house lights dimmed and we watched the first of six specially chosen clips from various times of Victoria’s career.  It was from As Seen in TV where Victoria was talking about dating. The next clip was Julie, from the same series.

The discussion then turned to how Victoria seemingly wrote mostly for women as she reportedly didn’t understand men’s mindsets and inner workings.  Consequently the core subject matters of Victoria’s comedy was around relationships, sex, and the intricacies of being a woman. Who else could successfully rhyme halternecks with oral sex and not only get away with it but elicit belly laughs in the process?

Julie then spoke of her favourite sketch of Victoria’s about Chrissie, the English Channel swimmer. The clip is filled with humour and pathos.  Its subtle mocking and heart-rendering delivery just works on so many levels.  A complete work of genius, said Julie, fondly. It’s a brilliant little gem of a sketch, she was the first to do those spoof fly-on-the-wall documentaries. They were extraordinary little films.

Piers spoke at length regarding Housewife, 49 and how he and Victoria had visited Barrow-in-Furness on a research trip where they found records of real people who had taken part in the mass observational diary project, instigated by the government of the day during the Second World War. Their names were transposed to form character names in the TV drama. They also found the original terraced house where Nella, Victoria Wood’s character, had actually lived and so she used some of the small details from that house in the actual drama.

There was a lot of audience participation in the form of questions and anecdotes which often generated lots of laughs and spurious quoting of Victoria’s work. Julie even threw in the infamous “What was it, muesli?”  line from Acorn Antiques which garnered rapturous applause from the audience. The Facebook group I’m a member of, Victoria Wood Quotations, even got mentioned in favourable terms which was good to hear.

The whole 90 minute event passed all too quickly and soon it came to an end.

The forthcoming BBC1 series Our Friend Victoria will be an extension of the BFI/Radio Times event and will feature those closest to her, fondly remembering her funniest sketches and personal anecdotes of Victoria.  The first episode of this six-parter starts on Tuesday 11th April at 9.30pm and will be based in the theme of Age, featuring scenes from dinnerladies, Acorn Antiques and the aforementioned sketch of Chrissie the long-distance Channel swimmer.

❉ Our Friend Victoria, a six-part series celebrating the comedy of Victoria Wood, commences on BBC One on Tuesday 11 April 2017, 9.30pm.

❉ 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.

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