22 April 2016

Victoria Wood: our reluctant national treasure


After her publicist confirmed she had died after a short but brave battle with cancer, tributes from Victoria Wood’s family, friends and colleagues have come flooding in. CapX has decided to honour the star with a brief overview of her career, and reminders of the best quotes written and performed by her.

Victoria Wood grew up in Bury in a family that largely left each other alone. Her father bought her a piano as a young girl, but she was too shy to continue with lessons so he wrote the names of the letters on the keys in pencil and above the dots of music on the page and left her to it. It was from this childhood which she described as obsessively playing and teaching herself the piano and watching comedy shows that she nurtured her ambition to perform, or as her family say “plotted a career to become the greatest female entertainer of her day”.

Her big break came when she won New Faces, an ITV talent show, in 1974. Her keen observational style meant she was able to create memorable characters, routines and songs in the world of comedy and beyond.Within the decade she had two plays performed and her first television series (Wood and Walters) commissioned. TV in the 80s was dominated by the two As Seen on TV series and the Bafta-winning An Audience with Victoria Wood.

In the 90s she moved into comedy drama, including the TV film Pat and Margaret, and in between various sold-out live shows she wrote her first sitcom, Dinnerladies. With an almost all-female, largely menopausal cast around her the show was quite literally in a field of its own. She also wrote extensively for theatre, penning a musical version of her hit TV comdedy, Acorn Antiques, in 2005.

Her older brother has said that her death has robbed us of one of the brightest talents of our generation. Julie Walters, who had formed a lifelong friendship with the comedian, actor and singer while auditioning at Manchester Polytechnic’s student theatre when she was a teenager, said her loss was “incalculable” and she was “too heart-sore” to comment further.

She has been described by the Guardian as Comedy’s Reluctant National Treasure, in response to an interview with the Daily Mail last year: “everyone’s a national treasure these days – you can’t move for them. There should only ever be one at a time. For years, it was Dame Thora Hird. After she died it was going to be Dame Judie Dench but then Joanna Lumley saved the Gurkhas so she got the gig”

She was feted often for acutely skewering some very English neuroses, especially suburban ones about sex and grammar. In her song, Pam she plays a narrow minded suburban woman: “I don’t say ‘who’ I say ‘whom’. I never use the toilet, just the smallest room. I don’t say gay I say queer. I think that Mussolini had the right idea”

Some of her other best one-liners from stand-up include:
“I thought Coq au Vin was love in a lorry”

“My children won’t even eat chips because some know-all bastard at school told them a potato was a vegetable”

“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”

And lines she gave to her memorable characters:
Kitty: “I thought – what would the Queen Mum do? So I just smiled and said ‘We shall have fog by teatime’”

Susie Blake’s newsreader: “We’d like to apologise to viewers in the north – it must be awful for you”

Bren: “and where has it got you, having a pelvic floor like a bulldog clip?”

Dozens of her lines have entered into family speech across the country (if someone dies we say, “72 baps, Connie – you slice, I’ll spread”) but her thoughts and comments out of character and off stage were just as poignant, and smile-inducing. For example, she always stood by the “life-affirming” value of comedy. “I think it’s perfectly valid to go out and get laughs. I think it’s a lovely thing to do actually.”

As she got older, she and her husband attended Quaker meetings because “as I’ve got older, I am more interested in having a belief. If you don’t it makes everything seem pointless. To only think ‘you’re alive, you have acne and then you die’ makes you wonder what it’s all for.”

In all, she won five Baftas including two for her one-off ITV drama Housewife, 49. But Michael Ball, her close friend and fellow musical entertainer highlighted her further reaching impact as a female star: “She made it seem to other women, you can do this. You just need to look at the various social media feeds to see the people she’s influenced.”

Critic and writer Clive James adds that she was noted not only for her talent but also her tremendous, single-minded drive and determination to pursue her chosen career. “She changed the field for women and indeed for everybody because very few of the men were trying hard enough as writers before she came on the scene and showed them what penetrating social humour should actually sound like.”

Almost peerless, she carved out her own career without precedent – the only woman , the only solo artist, the only northern woman/solo artist creating, writing and performing plays, standup, sketch shows, drama.

Victoria Wood will be remembered for her talent and her outstanding versatility.

Olivia Archdeacon is Assistant Editor at CapX