Category Archives: television

Vale Victoria Wood

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 MargaretHousewife 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.

Better late than never : We need more characters like Janet King

I start this post by admitting that I am always way late in catching up on movies and television that most people have seen, discussed and enjoyed months, sometimes years, earlier.  So it is with a certain sheepishness that I say, that while I know it aired on the ABC in early 2014, I only recently watched and absolutely loved Janet King. It had me gripped from beginning to end and I watched it in two sittings via Netflix. I get that two sittings may not be a true binge by most standards but it’s as close as I am likely to get on a work night.

Why did I enjoy Janet King so much? It has an intriguing, fast moving, suitably coincidence-laden, compelling plot and above all, it is simply very well written. I loved that it is Australian, with a large cast of brilliant local actors (including Peter Kowitz, Vince Colosimo and Hamish Michael) and that I sat enthralled by its 8 episodes the same way I am by my favourite Scandinavian dramas in The Bridge, Borgen and The Killing.

Of those dramas, Janet King, as a character, probably has most in common with Borgen’s Birgitte Nyborg. She is a determined, smart, confident, accomplished and, occasionally, flawed woman. She is excellent at her job and conflicted by her post maternity leave return to work. Her relationship with her partner is refreshing in that it is inherently part of the character’s trajectory but not the primary object of the narrative. Janet and Ash (Aimee Pedersen) juggle the day to day stresses of work, home, and parenting like many couples but the issues that  the show presents as occasionally dividing them are largely external. It is refreshing to see a couple portrayed on television where the focus is not on the machinations of the relationship or whether it will survive. As an audience, we accept Janet and Ash as a given and none of the challenges the storyline  throws in their path seems intended to shake our conviction in this regard.

As a character, Janet is easy to identify and empathise with. While most of us aren’t even remotely senior prosecutors, we recognize the pressures and politics of the workplace, any workplace, and then forgetting to do the shopping on the way home. It is the familiarity of these elements that anchor the story when the narrative heads full speed into more heightened mystery- thriller territory. It is the striking of a balance between the tropes of television story telling and the creation of recognisable, empathetic characters, that Janet King does particularly well.

Marta Dusseldorp in the title role is excellent. She suggests Janet’s professional confidence and determination while remaining self-effacing enough to make her a complex, vulnerable and completely engaging presence. There is something heartbreaking about how exposed she is when circumstances (and bad guys) separate her from her partner and children. As an audience, we are with her every step, as she attempts to solve the central mystery, in order to facilitate a reunion with them. The justified fierceness of her indignation at the threat to her family is palpable.  It is a confident, compassionate performance that results in a complex and relatable character. In Janet King, Dussledorp and the production team create a heroine as nuanced yet admirable, albeit in very  different ways, as Sarah Lund of The Killing or The Bridge’s Saga Noren.

While mystery at the series’ centre is completely absorbing, I admit (or do I boast?), I suspected the identity of the villain/s in slightly before the end.  If anything, this increased my investment in the piece as an elaborate cat and mouse game.  It is worth noting that I second-guessed and revised my theory multiple times until the final denouement and remained totally engrossed to the conclusion.

I have no doubt that I am not alone in hoping to see Janet King have a second season. It is easily as good as any of the multi part international dramas that are justifiably, and sometimes not so justifiably, hyped in this country. It is exciting to see an Australian drama that speaks to us with our own voice while absolutely holding its own, in terms of quality, in an international market.

I might be 12 months late but I enjoyed Janet King as much as anything I have seen on television over the last couple of years. We need  more characters like her on Australian television. More strong women who are recognisable, complex, confident, witty, passionate, smart, over 30 and not necessarily obsessed with finding their next relationship.

Janet King is available on IView until May 1 and currently on Netflix. Catch it if you haven’t already.