Writer, comedienne and actor Victoria Wood passed away this week aged only 62. A certified national treasure in the UK, she has never had the profile in Australia of a Dawn French or a Jennifer Saunders. As much as I love the work of both aforementioned women, Victoria Wood, along with playwright Hannie Rayson, are two of the earliest and most profound inspirations for my decision to write for performance.
Today, my heart, along with many other admirers of her work, is a little bit broken.
I can still remember the first time I saw Victoria Wood on television. I was 16 and we had not long had a video recorder. It was huge silver National NV 300 VHS with a remote control on a long cord. I came home one night from a school activity and my mother said “I taped a show for you tonight. Julie Walters was in it with another woman. It was hilarious.” It was “Victoria Wood – As Seen on TV”. My mother was right, it was hilarious but it was also clever, absurd and often incredibly poignant.
It was the first time that I understood the tragedy that is often at the heart of the best comedy. As I laughed at Victoria Wood’s more insane characters (Mrs Overall, Miss Babs and Miss Berta of Acorn Antiques) my heart ached for many others. I will never forget her amazing turn as Chrissie, the lonely teenage girl who dreams of swimming the English Channel and meeting Bonnie Tyler. Setting off alone while her utterly indifferent parents watch television and remain resolutely unconcerned, when she hasn’t arrived on the coast of France, eight days after setting off. If it doesn’t sound like the stuff of comedy, in its execution, it absolutely hits the mark and the humour has a fundamental humanity that still resonates 31 years later.
For a teenage girl in the 1980’s, the arrival of Victoria Wood along with French & Saunders denoted a mini revolution. They were smart, funny and unapologetic. They didn’t conform to conventional notions of women on television and while they may have recalled the comic heyday of women like Joyce Grenfell and Hattie Jacques, they were also completely unique in their own right. With their different approaches, Victoria Wood and French & Saunders were the first female comedians I can remember on television who celebrated the idiosyncrasies, brilliance, ridiculousness, absurdity, triumph, tragedy and humanity of everyday life. All the while making you howl with laughter and sometimes, shed genuine tears.
It is no stretch to say that Victoria Wood had genius about her. She wrote comedic songs, plays, sketch comedy, situation comedy, documentary and recently longer form drama and musicals. She had brilliant and long standing collaborators in Julie Walters, Celia Imrie and Duncan Preston. Their ability to do her writing justice and make the characters indelibly theirs at the same time was the beginning of my love for actors and their craft. Her “An Ordinary Man” sketch was the first thing I ever saw Jim Broadbent do on television and I have never forgotten it or him.
Her work never stopped being funny and brilliant and if anything it gained a greater poignancy and depth as her career matured (Pat and Margaret, Housewife 49, Dinnerladies). Over the years I have never stopped occasionally recalling some scene or sketch or periodically rewatching my favourite moments. In my immediate family we have almost unconsciously purloined a couple of her characters’ more distinctive phrases over the years that we still use amongst ourselves.
Victoria Wood has gone too soon. Far too soon. At 62 there was undoubtedly so much more to come and it is manifestly unfair that we have been robbed of an artist with so much art still to make. For my part, I am just grateful to my mother and a circa 1984 National VHS recorder for introducing me to an artist whose work has always inspired me and made me chuckle almost every day since.
Vale Victoria Wood.
…..and thank you.