A 20th Century Dickens, a Working-Class Feminist and Someone You Could Watch With Mother!
“I’ve scoured this store from top to bottom, can I find a side-winding thermal body belt? Can I buffalo!”
Quotes like these are as much a part of my childhood memories as drinking tea and having a roast on Sunday. These carefully crafted one-liners are emblematic of the skill and talent Victoria Wood CBE brought to British comedy in the late twentieth century. Barrages of the comedian’s sharp and witty quotes have popped up on social media since her death demonstrating the public mourning for a national treasure.
The Lancashire born comedian achieved initial success in 1974 on the TV show New Faces, but it wasn’t until 1978, when her long-term collaboration with actress Julie Walters began, with the play In At The Death, performed at the Bush Theatre in London, that Wood’s career really began to take shape. After forming a friendship and working relationship with Walters it seemed the pair could do no wrong. As Walters said, “Victoria wrote them and I acted them basically.” A simple formula, yet neither could have imagined just how successful the duo would become or that it would be a lasting collaboration spanning over thirty years.
Watching Victoria Wood each week was family bonding time in my household. It was like Wood and Co popped in for an hour each week and forced us to put the axes down and enjoy the entertainment, better than any talking therapy could have hoped to achieve. If there is any passion that the female members of my family share none is so strong as our love for Victoria Wood, Julie Walters et al. It was a family tradition to sit down together and watch Victoria Wood as Seen on TV and later Dinnerladies. As a child I would sit with my mother and my aunt, having been granted special permission to stay up late, and we would laugh our heads off from start to finish. You were guaranteed a giggle and it was light-hearted, family entertainment, something my mother not only didn’t mind me watching but actively encouraged me to watch – it was safe and ultimately harmless. Still today my aunt quotes from the show, “Can I crash by please I’m a diabetic?” The Victoria Wood show was part of the curriculum in my family home and the lessons were simple: never take yourself too seriously, embrace your working-class roots and as a woman always have the last laugh. Wood quietly represented the working-class woman with good humour and passion. In the late eighties and nineties this was the feminism my elders passed onto me.
“Our next doors had sex again last night. I mean, I like a joke but that’s twice this month!”
The sketch that epitomises Wood’s talent as a comedy sketch writer is none other than Two Soups. The sketch, simple yet brilliant, has Walters playing a dotty old waitress serving soup to Celia Imrie and Duncan Preston (three of Wood’s favourites). What makes this sketch comedy gold is the familiarity of it. It was so easy to relate to the characters. We’ve all met a forgetful waitress or a dithering shop assistant and Walters always managed to lift the roof off with her dodgy walks and deadpan humour.
Wood’s natural talent for turning ordinary people and their idiosyncrasies into hysterical, stomach-achingly funny, family entertainment was also evident in the successful BBC series Dinnerladies. It was about seeing the lighter side of the mundane life. It was Wood’s ability to observe and mimic the ordinary person that made her such a success. Wood was a twentieth century Charles Dickens. She brought ordinary people to life. Characters such as Twinkle, Ms Babs and the unforgettable Mrs Overall are as timeless as Miss Haversham, Mrs Gamp and Little Dorrit. A successful stand-up comedian, screenwriter, actress, director, singer and songwriter it is likely that Wood could have written Martin Chuzzlewit for the twentieth century twice over had she put her mind to it. The sketch Fatitude is a typically hilarious sketch where Wood shines in her abilities at capturing a character and making them larger than life.
A few years ago, during the interval of a play at the Arts Theatre in Leicester Square I bumped into Dawn French at the bar. I was completely dumbstruck. I couldn’t speak. I reached out to touch her arm; I had to check she was real. She looked at me like I was a crazed lunatic and made a swift exit. Of course she didn’t understand, how could she? Over the years I’ve met a fair few celebrities of varying stature and never once have I been as star-struck as I was when I met French. Why? Because like Imrie, Saunders, Walters and Wood these women had, unbeknown to them, played a crucial role in my childhood, I could barely believe she really existed. I’ve been lucky enough to see Walters and Wood on the stage in various parts, obviously Acorn Antiques at the Haymarket was a highlight, but I prayed, after my disastrous collision with French, never to bump into Walters or Wood, primarily because I’d rather not embarrass myself again, but also because they are mythical fairy godmothers from my childhood and should remain that way.
Yes, it is with heavy heart that I acknowledge I will never have the opportunity to publically humiliate myself in front of Wood, but then it was never about meeting a star and snatching a selfie for social media; I would have liked to have thanked this woman for all the laughs she gave me and most importantly I would have liked to have told her what a wonderful part she played in my childhood and all the delightful memories she has left me with.