Victoria Wood was a comedian, writer, actor and musician. She died on April 20th 2016, aged just 62.
Like so many people, I adored her work and was deeply saddened by her death. I loved watching her on television throughout my formative years. Developing an interest in acting, I would recite her lines, impersonate her characters, lap up everything she produced; as I started to take my first steps towards a career in performance, she was so often my inspiration.
Before Victoria Wood came along, women in comedy tended to be the foil to the male protagonists, the butt of the joke or little more than window dressing. They rarely had a central role. Then, in 1974, a 20 year old drama student from Prestwich in Lancashire won ITV talent show New Faces.
Victoria began her career with regular appearances on That’s Life, usually composing and performing topical comic songs, and wrote several TV screenplays in which she also appeared. She then created Wood & Walters, a sketch show also starring Julie Walters, which aired in 1982. Although it had only one series, the programme was to pave the way for the critically-acclaimed Victoria Wood as Seen on TV, a sketch show which introduced us to the now legendary Acorn Antiques and cemented Victoria’s reputation as one of the country’s finest comedians.
Victoria’s comedy was based on incisive social observation. She could find the hilarious in any everyday situation. As TV producer, Geoff Posner, said, “It’s quite unique to hold a mirror up to ordinary life and make it so special.”
She created an array of wonderful female characters. The outspoken Kitty, bolshy teenager Kelly Marie, the divine Dinnerladies… they depicted the female experience with a sense of richness and diversity. Her style could also be unashamedly northern, capturing the spirit and wit of the region without resorting to the usual flat cap and whippet clichés.
A brilliant wordsmith, she wrote some incredible lines, yet frequently gave these perfectly crafted linguistic jewels to other actors to speak. If I had written, “I bent over and tapped her on the cleavage with a pastry fork” or “I don’t particularly want the whole world to know I’m not a natural conker”, I might have kept them for myself.
She prioritised the work and lacked vanity; when it was required, she had no qualms about looking plain, frumpy or even downright ridiculous. Who can forget Bertha’s twin sets or the frightful perm she sported in Pat and Margaret?
In a career spanning over four decades, she delighted TV audiences with comedies such as the much-quoted An Audience with Victoria Wood. She could also create exceptional drama, demonstrated by the BAFTA winning Housewife, 49, in which she starred as the central character, Nella Last. The film was based on a real-life Lancashire housewife who had kept diaries throughout the Second World War. It proved that Victoria was not only a comic genius, but also an extremely skilful ‘straight’ actress and a serious dramatist.
She also wrote for the theatre, creating a musical based on Acorn Antiques, a stage version of Housewife, 49 and The Day We Sang, a play about the Manchester Children’s Choir. Moreover, it’s sometimes forgotten just what an exceptionally talented musician she was. Her ingenious song writing and skill as a pianist were often taken for granted. I was certainly too busy crying with laughter at the uproarious Ballad of Barry and Freda to really pay attention to the excellent musicianship behind it.
Victoria won a variety of awards throughout her career including six BAFTAs and a Writers’ Guild Award. She was made an OBE and a CBE and was given the British Comedy Award for Outstanding Achievement. In the tributes which followed her death, I heard many female stars explaining just how much she had not only influenced their work, but had been so important in forging a path for all those who came after her.
Successful, respected and much-loved, she appeared a modest woman who just cared passionately about her work. “It’s a lovely life –affirming job,” she once said. “You go out and you make people laugh… Who wouldn’t want to do that?”