It is difficult to know where to begin, so perhaps I should start at the end. Comedian Victoria Wood has died from cancer at the age of 62.
Comedian seems a bit of an understatement when you consider Victoria Wood’s talent and legacy. Comic genius, definitely. Her power of observation, to be inspired by what happened in living rooms and department stores and family planning clinics up and down the country, and serve it back to us absolutely dripping in wit and crushing one-liners, was incredible. Comedians, well, they just stand there and hog all the best jokes. Talents like Victoria surrounded herself with others and gave them all the best lines, even though she could play every single part herself.
The word ‘icon’ is depressingly overused. But, as mortified as she would be to hear it, Victoria Wood is more than worthy of that title. She’s earned it. She owns it.
So the thing you do that you’re not supposed to do when a famous person dies is make it about you. You try, I suppose, to keep a lid on your own feelings because, as will be pointed out to you time and again by complete acquaintances, this isn’t really about you – you’re not in their immediate family and it’s disrespectful to them. But can I really talk about Victoria Wood without saying what she did for me? Can I buffalo!
We will read a thousand obituaries, all mentioning Acorn Antiques and New Faces and Julie Walters and the BAFTAs, dutifully listing her many achievements and accolades. And while she deserves all of that, more than there could possibly be, I’ve been much more interested to read how she made the rest of us feel, what her comedy meant to us, even if it meant nothing.
Victoria’s influence shouldn’t be underestimated. There’s a whole generation – ageing gay men, especially – who can quote all manner of sketches, from the crotchety women in the Turkish baths (“Liberace could come through in a long-line bra and our Jack wouldn’t twig on”) , TV presenters Margery and Joan (“42 in April and no bra – not bad, eh?”) to the amazing women trying and failing to get a lunch in Debenhams cafe (“You’ve a look of Eva Braun – did you know?”). But Victoria’s influence is more than a Withnail And I-esque in-joke and student bar quote-along session – her razor wit felt for us, about us. The mundane was her realm, and ours. She thrived in it, holding up a microscope to our nanas’ obsession with doilies and the etiquette of funerals.
I have vague memories of Victoria in her first headline comedy show for TV, Wood and Walters, with longtime collaborator Julie Walters, but the big one is, of course, As Seen On TV, the birthplace of Acorn Antiques and the decrepit Mrs Overall, along with being one of the very first examples of comedy ‘mockumentaries’. Shows like The Office and The Comeback owe a lot to Victoria Wood, both directly but also benefiting from the appetite for the genre Victoria created.
I was definitely too young to be watching Victoria’s cast of irrepressible women characters deliver killer line after killer line, but as there were never any scenes of anyone ‘doing it’, plus the fact every Victoria Wood character was like someone we knew, I was given a free pass. I soaked up every word. My mum and I still quote her back to each other even now.
Characters like Kitty – “all this in a voice loud enough to blow the froth of a Horlicks two tables away” – and Pamela and her nymphomaniac mother (played brilliantly by Anne Reid and Dora Bryan) were people we could very easily bump into in the post office. I was fascinated to see these sometimes quite grotesque, but always entertaining, women finally represented on TV. I didn’t realise that northerners like us could be funny for something other than our accents being used as a punchline. These women were strong, not to be fucked with, real. Even this horrendous checkout girl, Gemma, gets one over on the snooty customer in the end. Victoria Wood taught me that people from nothing, who perhaps were seen as nothing by everyone else, could win.
Victoria was my salvation at school on more than one occasion. Nobody else was allowed to watch her show, so I honed my smart mouth and sharp tongue – essential when fending off a barrage of basic, Bernard Manning-level poof jokes and sodomy references – by syphoning off her best lines. Hell, even her worst lines. All the lines, every single one! Quipping back at my tormentors – and trying to hang on to my friends – like an acidic, passive-aggressive old lady from Cheshire managed to see me out of some difficult situations.
On one school project to launch a product we could sell to fellow pupils, aged 12, I was being left out because I wasn’t particularly good at numbers, or drawing, and nobody would let me near the writing, as that was for girls.
The only thing left to do was appear on camera and be in the ‘advert’ that would be shown to everyone in assembly. Nobody wanted to do it because the project was hugely uncool, and also, to be honest, none of them could string a sentence together, the bunch of fucking idiots. The teacher made me do it, and although I had spent my short lifetime desperate to fade into the background, from somewhere I found something.
I remember very clearly sitting on the brown plastic seat stock-still in front of the huge camera and feeling fatally nervous. And as my mind worked overtime on what I was going to do, autopilot took over. Before I knew it, I was delivering a pitch-perfect impression of Kitty, making up a monologue as I went along, laying into the absolutely dreadful product we were trying to sell to the rest of the school, and snatching every single wig from every head in my class in just three short minutes. I have never felt so alive.
The advert was never shown beyond our own class and, I heard, the teachers’ room, but I was the only one on the project to get an A. Thank you, Victoria.
Anyone who has read even just one or two pieces that I’ve written will know Victoria Wood has been a huge influence on me. I learned to write by reading and rereading all her script books – Barmy was my favourite and I still have my ancient copy – and by adapting her references to suit me and my own life. You can’t buy a sense of humour off the peg, but mine was certainly shaped by Victoria’s incredible talent.
My cousin and I even recorded our own radio soap, set in the planet’s worst burger bar,using various soft toys, and it owed more than one plot line to Acorn Antiques – although our version of Miss Babs was a dog called Snowy who ran the joint with her brother, a gorilla teddy called Clive.
Absolutely everything I have ever written, even shopping lists and emails to customer services departments, carries her influence. Without her, I’d never have even thought of writing. I do this because of her. Seriously. This post was originally called ‘Victoria Wood changed my life’, because she did. But she’d probably think that was a bit much.
It’s impossible to think of a fitting tribute, or the best sketch, to close on, but some of her best moments were notionally only throwaway lines. So let’s end it here:
“72 baps, Connie. You slice, I’ll spread.”