Whenever someone famous dies, there’s always a race to try and encapsulate their magic in a hastily-written eulogy. And in a year that has seen a virtual cull of the great and the good, there’s certainly been no shortage of ‘hot takes.’ So I find myself writing this tribute to Victoria Wood somewhat tentatively. After all, I’m sure countless writers have already posted their own impeccably crafted tributes to Lancashire’s finest comedian, singer-songwriter and One Cal spokeswoman. The flags will already be flying at half-mast in Manchesterford.
But it has to be done. The thing is, I’m convinced that there’s a whole generation of writers who feel that they owe Victoria Wood a debt of gratitude. Not just for the laughs, of which there were far too many to mention. But also, for instilling in us a love of words themselves. Rather than writing jokes, which would have felt too formulaic coming from such an astute observational comedian, Victoria Wood understood the idiosyncrasies of language. And she reveled in it.
Victoria Wood never had to rely on slapstick, wordplay or farce. Instead, she specialised in monologues and two-handers – impeccably capturing the absurdities and nuances of how ordinary people speak. Unsurprisingly, given her Northern upbringing, she also had an uncanny ear for regional dialects, which is why so much of her best material was reserved for Julie Walters, whose own prodigious talents deserve separate celebration.
Despite being an exceptional stand-up, Wood’s humility and unassuming nature often came through in her performances, which is why she was always content to give the showier lines (and parts) to other members of her fiercely loyal, but unofficial company of performers.
The characters who occupied Victoria’s world often had sharp tongues, but were rarely unkind. The closest she ever came to abject cruelty, was Walters’ character in the bittersweet TV movie Pat and Margaret, sniping: “I can’t be seen to have a blood relative and a Lancashire accent you could go trick-or-treating in.” Instead, like many of the Northern battle-axes depicted on Coronation Street, to which Victoria paid unforgettable tribute in one of her finest sketches, the humour often came from an unvarnished take on the eccentricities of modern life.
In one classic sketch, written for Julie Walters, a woman commented: “She’s trouble all round, with her bloomin’ sex changes. I never know whether to get her to wash up, or help push-start a Montego.” Even in the less-enlightened early nineties, Wood avoided making a transgendered woman the butt of the joke. Here, the humour comes from the despairing practicality of Walters’ character. In another classic moment, a woman reflects on her suspicions about her husband’s affair with a short neighbour, remarking angrily, “I wondered why he’d had that cat-flap widened.”
For many of my peers, Wood’s world of hairnets and pikelets, bilberry yoghurts and opinion polls, was easily dismissed as safe, middle-of-the-road. Mumsy, even. As my contemporaries sought out the edgier alternative comedy that proliferated in the late eighties, or the surrealism of acts like Vic and Bob, Victoria Wood’s knack for wringing laughs from words like architrave and vestibule remained unrivalled. At the heart of her writing was an understanding of the tension between aspiration and earthiness; pretension and pragmatism. She understood the women who’d discuss the evening news, only to fixate on the newsreaders’ outfits: “Three bangles and a polo neck, thank you.” As an embodiment of Susan Sontag’s definitive explanation of ‘camp,’ her writing delighted in treating frivolous things seriously, and serious things frivolously.
Rarely swearing, and seldom conjuring anything spicier than a PG rating would allow for, Wood was able to mine countless belly laughs from a carefully curated lexicon of ridiculous-sounding words. Like the free gift with every purchase of Sacharel cosmetics, her language was “packed to the drawstring with handy-sized oddments.”
Her taste for the absurdism of the everyday often came to the fore in a series of impeccably performed mini-documentaries that pre-dated The Day Today and The Office by well over a decade. Despite being laugh-out-loud funny, they had an undercurrent of pathos, even tragedy at times, that showed where her sympathies lay. Her songs were equally empathetic. Yesterday, Twitter was awash with misquotes of the legendary Woman’s Weekly line from The Ballad of Barry and Freda, but there were other, lesser-known gems in her repertoire that carried far more weight. In particular, Crush captured the loneliness of unrequited teenage infatuation with just as much insight as Janis Ian’s At 17, albeit from a uniquely British perspective: “I saw you today, well, I just saw your blazer, and it went through my heart like the beam of a laser, and I thought that today, you would turn around and see me but you didn’t.”
I’ve seen comments that, before Victoria Wood, women were practically invisible in comedy. And no doubt, her success with As Seen On TV, inspired and enabled countless other female comedians. But Victoria was never a trail-blazer by intent – in fact it was her resolutely conventional perspective that allowed her appeal to transcend multiple generations, often at the same time.
But there was something else, something fundamental, about her influence. I realized yesterday, as I posted a hasty tribute on Facebook, just how many of my deepest friendships had, in some way, been cemented by a mutual, enduring love of her work. For a generation of gays, especially, here was a language that was all our own. “Hold your ponies, Pam,” and “Can I crash by, I’m a diabetic,” became a kind of post-liberation Polari. As our peers waffled on about football, or the latest band vying for a place on the cover of NME, we’d be laughing at the check-out girl’s dog blanket (”He were called Whiskey”), or asking if anyone had seen our friend, Kimberly. Without realizing it, Victoria Wood gave a generation of gays a voice; one that sounded an awful lot like Julie Walters doing a Brummie accent.
Victoria Wood didn’t focus on underdogs – she simply celebrated real people. Hers was a world stuffed full of Colins and Connies, Tunstalls and Mottersheds. And to anyone who grew up North of Watford, there was an unmistakable authenticity to it all. We could hear the origins of her humour in our own families. I remember, when my Grandma turned 92, a relative bought her a beautiful pashmina scarf. I commented how nice it was, and that she’d look lovely if she wore it whenever she went out. She simply pursed her lips, and said “I only ever go as far as the bins.” She wasn’t cracking a joke – that’s just how she spoke. And Victoria Wood understood that better than anyone.