I have a Google alert for Victoria Wood. It doesn’t pop much but when it does it’s always very exciting. Victoria Wood never talked about her projects until they were ready to go, tickets were on sale, set the recorder box, pre-order the dvd. While I was waiting on my bag at Dublin Airport I got the email. My heart leapt. But it wasn’t the announcement of a stand-up tour that I had convinced myself would happen. Instead it gave news I was sure was a mistake but by the time I had clicked on the link two texts had arrived from friends. The first said “Did you see Victoria Wood is dead”. The second: “Don’t look at the news”.
There will be no more joyous anticipation of how she will entertain us next. Every time I mutter one of her glorious lines to myself will be tinged with great sadness. I tried to recall the most recent ones as I dumped my phone into my bag. There were two the previous day, “I like it in meat-packing cos it’s dead near toilet” at the volcano where they were barbecuing chicken perilously close to the gents and then at dinner “never touch prawns…they hang around sewage outlets treading water with their mouths open”. Damn, not Victoria Wood.
There were many tributes. The most poignant from long-term collaborator Julie Walters who said it was “incalculable”. That hit it right on the head. She opened the doors for women in comedy. But in truth she opened the doors for anyone who has ever written a gag or kept a notebook of ideas. Before Victoria Wood it was too easy to dismiss comics as visionless gag monkeys in desperate need of somebody to mould it all into something. She wrote the hell out of her shows. You could see it. There was never a spare word. The meter was always perfect. She brought niche mainstream.
I marvelled at the way she worked. I don’t know of another comic who has written dramatic screenplays, plays, and musicals, and by musicals I don’t mean piddling about with the libretto. I mean the book, the music and the lyrics. She taught herself the piano. Of course she did. She was an accomplished musician. She never just bashed out chords to accompany herself. She wrote beyond the performers’s abilities and met her own requirements. Her seminal song The Ballad of Barry and Freda (the LET’S DO IT! one) has key change after key change. Watch her sing and play it. When she finishes she jumps off the piano stool like someone who has climbed Everest. In Acorn Antiques: The Musical! she wrote a 5 minute masterpiece for Mrs Overall called Macaroons which required both her and Julie Walters to go for vocal training to get through the songs coda.
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As we all clock up numerous clicks on Victoria Wood’s work and mull over all of those killer lines it is remarkable how many of them are not in her voice. Her generosity with enviable material was to be admired. In so many scenes she was the straight-woman setting up gags for Julie Walters to fire. Blissfully silly writing delivered straight with razor-sharp timing. It was heavenly. Victoria’s character would enquire “what sort of dog is it?” and Walters would deadpan “performing.. rolls around the kitchen on a beach-ball”.
It was her diversity that was startling, she was as at home writing heart-wrenching drama as she was crafting gut-busting comedy. The perfect encapsulation of this was her 1997 album Real Life – The Songs. Dark, melancholy songs like Andrea and Litter Bin sat at ease with “Barry and Freda” and Alternative Tango.
Like all comedians, when it came to the work she liked to be in control of everything. Before I attempted any comedy, I vividly remember reading an article about the creation of her series dinnerladies. She was inspired by E.R. and wanted to write a workplace sitcom with people coming in and out. To research it she went to work in a canteen for three weeks. She then wrote episodes in a refill pad until she “knew what she was doing” and then wrote the series and turned it in to the BBC with the warning that if they messed with it she wouldn’t do it. I once read an article documenting a week of production where Wood terrorised the actors including herself with new pages and re-writes. It ended as Victoria finally got a few minutes to herself before the recording where she was going to put together her set for the studio warm-up. To someone with a budding comedy ambition it was heady stuff. She knew exactly how everything should be for this to work and that included fluffing the audience.
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I’m sad that I never got to see her standup live. She spoke about it and said that when she was putting a show together she would tour smaller theatres with the old show and drop in a new 20 minutes until it was all replaced by new material. She never threw the baby out with the bathwater. In her recorded shows you can see her growing confidence as a standup. She started behind a piano then had a mic on a stand and then just a radio mic in her hair. The subject matter grew more personal. While she was never sweary it is just plain wrong to say she didn’t have an edge. Her song Alternative Tango (AKA Political Correctness) has some gutsy lyrics. In her last standup show she talked openly and hilariously about her struggle with compulsive eating. I am always amazed by people who dismiss her standup. My followup question is “Have you watched a show?” and the answer is always no. But people watched in their droves. Following her death the Royal Albert Hall issued a statement on their website that having performed there 47 times she sill holds the record for both the longest run of shows by a female headline artist and the longest run of shows by a comedian, with an unprecedented run of 15 sell-out shows in 1993, and again in 1996. I remember someone mentioning seeing her leave the Royal Albert Hall after this record breaking run and getting into her car to drive herself home. I imagined this scene many times; in my version she is still wearing her onstage red overcoat and her car is a Renault 5. But I doubt it happened that way.
I met her once. It was after an early preview of her musical “Acorn Antiques”. She was coming out the stage door and people gathered around her. She was lovely. There were maybe ten people. We told her how great the show was and she groaned. “What bits didn’t you like.. we need to cut about 20 minutes”. She signed programs and reached for mine, opened it, and began to sign it while talking to someone else. Then she said “oh I am sorry… Look I’m not even on the right page”. She turned to a page emblazoned with her photograph, asked me to spell my name and made a joke about how it sounded like a haemorrhoid cream. I saw the musical three more times and it remained a two and a half hour epic until she rewrote it for a tour. Last night I dug out my program. I found the page she originally started to sign. It was an ad for the Theatre Trust. Just to the left of it there is a “Vi” scribbled in blue biro over the slogan “here today gone tomorrow”.