When Victoria Wood was about six, she had an epiphany in Buxton. “It was the first time I’d seen anyone stand on their own on stage,” she recalled. “I didn’t realise that there were jobs like that before – that one could stand on stage and speak, with no props except for a nice frock and people would die laughing.” The woman was Joyce Grenfell, the great, though perhaps to modern tastes unremittingly genteel, comedian and monologist.
Wood, who has died aged 62 of cancer, was a diffident child, but she found inspiration in Grenfell. “Stand-up comedy is the ideal place for a shy person because you’re completely in control,” she explained later in her career. But there was another reason: Grenfell was an interloper in a male preserve. In her 1980 TV play, Nearly a Happy Ending, Wood played a frumpy character, Maureen, who tells her wannabe famous friend Julie that girls can’t stand up and tell jokes. “Girls don’t,” says Maureen. But Victoria Wood did.
In her teens she plotted a career to become the greatest female entertainer of her day. In many respects she succeeded: she was widely adored not just as a stand-up comedian but as singer and songwriter, TV dramatist, and to a lesser extent actor. Appointed CBE in 2008, she had seven Bafta awards and two South Bank Show profiles to prove the point.
She was feted often for acutely skewering some very English neuroses, especially suburban ones about sex and grammar. In her song called Pam, she impersonated a small-minded fascist - a typical Wood anti-heroine:
“I don’t say ‘who’. I do say ‘whom’.
I never use the toilet, just the smallest room.
I don’t say gay. I still say queer.
I think that Mussolini had the right idea.”
She excoriated fools gladly. Some found her comedy cruel. Reviewing the 1996 stand-up show that won her top female comedy performer at that year’s British Comedy Awards, the critic Ben Thompson wrote: “There is an uncomfortable suspicion that Wood’s much vaunted flair for the everyday might actually be rooted in contempt rather than sympathy.” Viewed in this context, her fondly observed sitcom Dinnerladies (1998-2000), about canteen workers in a factory, can be seen as an atonement for any such comedy crimes.
Not only was Wood a woman in a traditionally male world but she was also a northerner loosening the Oxbridge chokehold on comedy at the time. She was very alive to southern-centrism. “We’d like to apologise to our viewers in the north,” she wrote for the deliciously snooty TV announcer played by Susie Blake. “It must be awful for you.”
She was a different proposition from typical northern comics: she was a middle-class, sophisticated woman whom critics compared to Noël Coward and Alan Bennett. When the Observer interviewer Richard Brooks asked if Wood holidayed in Blackpool, she snapped: “What do you take me for? We used to go to Vienna.” And they did: the Woods towed their Sprite Musketeer four-berth caravan across Europe for their holidays. She was also defiantly unglamorous. “I think what it was saying,” Wood said of what she called her “very masculine look” onstage, “was that whatever I am just take it and don’t analyse it and just listen to the comedy.”
She was born in Bury, Lancashire. “I was brought up in one room with a television, a piano and a sandwich,” she recalled. “I just lived on my own. My parents were in other rooms. My father and mother didn’t watch television at all.” Rather, her father, Stanley, an insurance salesman, spent the evenings writing plays – one of them, Clogs!, was staged in 1975, and he later went on to write for Coronation Street; her mother, Nellie (nee Helen Mape), was a mature student at Manchester University during her daughter’s childhood.
Victoria was the youngest of four: her brother was much older and her two sisters were as outgoing as their sister was, as she put it, ingoing. She found few friends at Bury grammar school. “I wasn’t completely unpopular … but I didn’t feel I was in the mainstream with people who were really having a wonderful time ... I’d look at other girls and wish I could be like them, interested in boys, meeting in the Wimpy bar on Saturday mornings and going to discos.
“I was also addicted to sugar, which makes you depressed,” she added. “So I think I was always slightly depressed as a child and a teenager.” She found solace in two things. The first was Pamela Brown’s novel The Swish of the Curtain, about a group of children who performed their own theatre productions in a disused chapel. (“That’s what I wanted to do,” she said when she read the book.) The other was the piano her father bought for her 15th birthday: “I played anything, anything I could read. I was very good at sightreading.”
After leaving school she studied drama at the University of Birmingham, and while there got her big break. She had already played comic songs in folk clubs in Birmingham when she successfully auditioned to appear on the TV talent show New Faces. In the first round she beat a unicycling ventriloquist and a couple from Bournemouth who sang “an old tyme medley”. But she was eliminated in the second round, in which she sang a song called Lorraine about a woman dolefully contemplating marriage to a man who washes his Cortina more than his neck.
Even though she didn’t make the New Faces final, she was selected to join the comedian Lenny Henry and singer-comedian Marti Caine to appear in The Summer Show, a variety series fronted by Leslie Crowther, in which she wore a bustle and duetted with the host. She appeared in a revue show devised and written by the poet Roger McGough called Wordplay, which transferred from Edinburgh to the Hampstead theatre in 1976. The Hlcarpenter.com’s Michael Billington singled out her “genial songs”, while the Times’s Irving Wardle highlighted “the deadpan artist Victoria Wood” as one of the “drollest personalities”. She went on to become the resident pianist for That’s Life, the BBC’s topical TV show presented by Esther Rantzen, for which she wrote songs riffing on current events.
In that year, too, she met the love of her life, a former librarian called Geoffrey Durham who was to reinvent himself as a conjuror called the Great Soprendo. She saw him in Leicester playing Buffalo Bill in a musical. He encouraged her to develop a stand-up routine punctuating songs with comedy. They later married and had two children, Grace and Henry.
But she was not just a stand-up. She wrote sketches for a revue called In at the Death at London’s Bush theatre for actors including her great future collaborator Julie Walters. While there, she was invited by David Leland, then director at the Crucible theatre, Sheffield, to write a play for its 1978 new season. The result was Talent, which Wood wrote expressly with Walters in mind, about a woman called Julie preparing backstage for a talent show with her friend Maureen, and realising that the contest is rigged.
Paul Allen wrote in the Hlcarpenter.com: “It incorporated a wealth of human disillusion and more comic one-liners than is altogether fair in a sad, sad story.” Its problem, he wrote, was that is was sometimes “too knicker-wettingly funny”. No matter: Wood won a Plays and Players award and the Evening Standard’s promising new playwright prize. At the party for the latter, her biographer, Neil Brandwood, claimed she was clutching her bowl-shaped award when Princess Margaret flicked some cigarette ash into it.
The Granada producer Peter Eckersley, impressed at what he saw on stage in Sheffield, asked Wood to adapt Talent for television. The resulting film, starring Walters for the first time in the role that was written for her, proved such a success when shown in 1979 that Eckersley commissioned two more TV plays - Nearly a Happy Ending and Happy Since I Met You – and urged her to write a sketch show called Wood and Walters (1981-82).
In 1984, Wood moved to the BBC, where she was able to choose the actors who performed in her sketches for the series Victoria Wood As Seen on TV (1985-87), thereby assembling a repertory of like-minded regulars – Walters, Celia Imrie, Duncan Preston and Blake among them. She wrote Acorn Antiques for this series – a spoof of low-budget soap opera, based on Crossroads, with wobbly sets, daft storylines and actors missing their cues. Perhaps modestly, she saved the best role, the Brummie char Mrs Overall, and lines, for Walters, playing the relatively minor role of Berta herself. The sketch proved such a hit that, in 2005, Wood wrote Acorn Antiques: The Musical!, for the Theatre Royal, in London.
She went into therapy for a while in the 1990s, emerging with a confidence and self-containedness that surprised those who suspected she was doomed to be awkward and vulnerable. “I am self-confident and I am self-contained,” she told an interviewer. Was she always? “No, not at all. Not as a teenager and not as a young woman.” She and her husband attended Quaker meetings. “As I’ve got older, I am more interested in having a belief,” she said. “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 1994, she wrote Pat and Margaret, about two sisters, one a star of a US soap, the other a motorway service station waitress, who are reunited after 27 years. Wood admitted that there was more than a little of Pat in her, the woman “so determined to get on there’s no room for anything else”, but she wrote that role for Walters and instead played disappointed Margaret herself.
“Margaret’s all the people who don’t have a voice and don’t have any way of getting themselves up the ladder,” she reflected. But she was also playing Margaret as homage to the woman she could have been. “If I’m honest there is part of me that feels, or rather felt, very vulnerable and patronised and this is my way of showing that side of myself.”
In 2002, her 22-year marriage ended. She told an interviewer in 2011 she had not been in another relationship since. “There’s not much of a chance for me finding somebody of my age. Gentlemen of my age are dropping down 30 years to find girlfriends.” That’s not always the case, the interviewer replied. “You’re right. I need to get out of the house.”
Her work in the new millennium diversified beyond funny. As an actor, she played Eric Morecambe’s mother in the BBC drama Eric and Ernie (2011), and starred with Timothy Spall in Sky TV’s adaptation of Raymond Briggs’s Fungus the Bogeyman (2015).
Her own plays for TV included Housewife, 49 (2006), an adaptation of the real diaries of Nella Last for the Mass Observation scheme, in which she played the eponymous role of an introverted middle-aged character who discovers new confidence and friendships in Lancashire during the second world war; and Loving Miss Hatto (2012), a biopic of the pianist Joyce Hatto, whose husband was responsible for a notorious musical fraud, passing off dozens of recordings by other artists as his wife’s work. That Day We Sang, a stage show that was adapted for television, explored life in Manchester in 1929 and 1969, starting from the celebrated recording of Purcell’s Nymphs and Shepherds by a choir of 250 children.
The critic and writer Clive James said of Wood: “As a TV dramatist alone, she is on a par with Alan Bennett, while as a creator of comedy programmes 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.”
She is survived by her children.
- Victoria Wood, comedian, playwright and singer-songwriter, born 19 May 1953; died 20 April 2016