Victoria Wood: Northern powerhouse, national treasure

An exhaustive biography of the trailblazing comedy genius leaves no stone unturned

Thursday, 12th November 2020 — By Stephen Griffin

Victoria Wood photo Catherine Ashmore

Victoria Wood at the Albert Hall. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

VICTORIA Wood’s genius was so evident it seems almost inconceivable that it took so long for her to establish herself. As early as 1976 she’d enjoyed considerable success on the TV talent show New Faces and appeared before a weekly audience of some 18 million on That’s Life! yet weeks later she was still relatively unknown and soon to become unemployed.

So what went wrong?

According to Jasper Rees’s meticulous doorstop of a biography, Let’s Do It, Wood’s problem was two-pronged: a) despite almost arrogant self-belief she suffered from crippling shyness; and b) she was so unique no one – including her first agent – knew what to do with her. Even much later, trembling on the verge of National Treasurehood, neither a traditional end-of-the-pier entertainer or an “alternative” comedian, she defied pigeonholing.

It may seem strange to be both confident and shy, but Wood’s estranged husband, Geoffrey Durham, tells a slightly different story.

He says she was often incensed by the way men in the media ignored women. Indeed, when she appeared on Radio 4’s Start The Week she found then-host Richard Baker deeply patronising. “That in turn made her defensive, angry and stand-offish and unwilling to participate. Hence the view she was shy… which she often also was.”

The book makes much of Wood’s dissatisfaction with her looks and weight, and how her eccentric childhood shaped her later life.

Her parents – particularly her mother – were not exactly hands-on. Still, it was all grist to her comic mill and later parental neglect (or at least indifference) was to become a familiar Wood trope. The family, she insisted, lived in separate rooms in a remote, ramshackle house on a hill above Bury, never eating together. That weird dynamic turned her into a loner, obsessed with books, television and music.

These days it’s hard to fully appreciate what a trailblazer Wood was. Although she was in the vanguard of women’s comedy she always hated the distinction. “Funny is funny whatever you have in your trousers,” was her dictum. To head up a one-woman show was a long-held aspiration – a seed planted by seeing Joyce Grenfell as a child. She not only achieved that ambition but surpassed all expectations – no other comic, male or female, has sold out the Albert Hall 47 times.

Victoria Wood in her musical version of Acorn Antiques at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2005. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

On a polar opposite scale, Islington’s intimate King’s Head was the scene of early triumphs. She certainly knew her audience.

“Don’t worry about being mugged leaving the theatre,” she told them. “You are much more likely to be subsidised.”

In one show at the King’s Head she included a patter song about a hopeless singer who eventually enjoyed success after becoming a professional Northerner. The lyrics ran:

“Now I’m fully Northern and it works a treat.
Spend half the year in Preston, and the other in Crete.
Buying a bungalow in Weybridge before too long,
when I’ve made enough brass (money) from my Northern song.”

Those lyrics must have run through her head when Wood herself was later to decant from Morecambe to Highgate’s West Hill.

Keaton, Chaplin, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Ricky Gervais… there’s no shortage of comedy practitioners who not only act in and write their own material but take a pivotal role in casting, producing and directing it. Whether this is egomania or the only way a committed comic can keep control of the material is open to conjecture.

Wood’s steely grip on her scripts and her striving for perfection – often hurting old friends and colleagues in the process – is the nearest the book comes to controversy.

But it’s interesting to chart her growth in confidence as her stock rose and the rest of the world caught up with her opinion of herself, how she eventually learned to say no if something did not interest her.

Over the years I had a couple of encounters with Victoria Wood. In 1987 she was a judge of a Radio Times comedy writing competition for which I was shortlisted (I learned later that she was the only judge who liked my entry) so when I embarked on this journalism lark I wrote to her requesting an interview.

Just after her Bafta-laden BBC sketch show As Seen On TV, she was at the peak of her fame and I had no journalistic experience or commission but after some cajoling she agreed and was, looking back, incredibly generous with her time.

Later I asked her to contribute to a book I was writing about Ken Dodd. Initially she was reluctant but again, after some more gentle cajoling, she agreed. So maybe she didn’t quite learn how to say no after all.

Over the years Wood had frequently been courted by publishers to write an autobiography. Rees’s almost 600-page account is probably the closest we’ll ever have to such a thing. It’s certainly the definitive biography – perhaps a little too much so. The author had access to Wood’s archive of letters, scrapbooks and audio diaries and spoke to most of her inner circle.

Die-hard Victoria Wood fans will lap it up but I can’t help but think Vic herself might have wielded her Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady secateurs.

Let’s Do It: The Authorised Biography of Victoria Wood. By Jasper Rees, Trapeze, £20.

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