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21 April 2016

Victoria Wood gave us the gift of being able to laugh at ourselves

Without her, who is going to tell the rest of the world about the sheer ridiculousness of being a middle-aged woman?

By Helen Walmsley-Johnson


The news of Victoria Wood’s death landed like a grenade on Wednesday, partly because it was so wholly unexpected and partly because it felt like losing a very dear friend. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. I imagine a great many people felt like that.

I can’t claim to have known Victoria Wood but I did meet her once. It was in 1976 at Leicester’s Phoenix Theatre and I was the artistic director’s assistant. I remember a wearying battle to source a fresh pig’s head (at minimal cost) for every performance of Richard III and I remember relieving the trauma of ringing round abattoirs by watching Geoffrey Durham perfect his magician, The Great Soprendo (“Piff! Paff! Poof!”) over the course of many afternoon matinees, alternated with appearances as, I think, the Duke of Clarence in the evening. I don’t remember much about meeting Victoria, except that we were all in the same company and she and Geoff had just become an item – they married a few years later. I do remember warmth though, perhaps because warmth was in short supply in 1976, which was also the year my mother died.

In subsequent years Wood’s sharp observations made the existential nightmares of bodies, friendships, fashion and social niceties funny but never uncomfortable. At a time when women were regarded largely as decoration, she seemed to be quietly handing some of the power back. Anything with the name “Victoria Wood” on it was a treat to be hoovered up like chocolate and certain phrases passed into our family vocabulary. The Opinion Poll sketch, for instance, removed any possibility of any of us ever saying the words “bona fide” correctly, or with a straight face, for the rest of our natural lives. Choosing a colour was more often than not accompanied by the phrase, “in all shades of the speculum”. Then, of course, there were “Two Soups”, “Sweet Trolley” and “Turkish Bath” (“By god, if her bum were a bungalow she’d never get a mortgage on it”)… The best thing was that everyone else knew what you were talking about. Wood’s humour was the opposite of alienating. Her writing contained a spark of recognition in almost every sentence.

It is in the smallest details of Wood’s astute observation of middle-aged women that I see a way being prepared for later life that was neither patronising nor cruel. To place older women front and centre in Acorn Antiques and Dinnerladies was way ahead of its time. Miss Berta’s rebellious body seized every opportunity to burst from an over-tight suit, Miss Babs prim, pussy-bowed, in denial, and both with painting-by-numbers maquillage, accurately skewered the difficulties we encounter as the years pile up. The immortal Mrs Overall with her knobbly varicosed legs and stooped posture (“Mrs Overall can’t have got far. That’s one of the blessings of osteoporosis”) made me determined not to go the same way but not to mind too much if life had other plans. I’ve read an accusation that Wood’s humour was born out of contempt and snobbery, but I couldn’t disagree more. Sharp, yes, but she gave us the gift of being able to laugh at ourselves. I was and never have been, offended – I think because her writing is so true. There are no lazy stereotypes, no clichéd plotlines. Watching clips now they are as fresh and original as the moment they first appeared. Anything currently on our screens seems clumsy and inept by comparison.

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Perhaps the most enduring memory I have of Victoria Wood’s quiet brilliance is of both her writing and performance in “Housewife, 49”, her 2006 dramatisation of the wartime diaries written by Nella Last as part of the government’s Mass Observation project. I was surprised to learn that Wood disliked acting because she was so bloody good at it, or perhaps that was why she was so good at it. To be able to make us see and understand what lay at the heart of this poignant piece of work is a towering achievement and deservedly won her a brace of BAFTA awards for Best Single Drama and Best Actor. Unusually with a face as well-known as Wood’s, I was able to believe in the character completely. It remains one of the most accurate portrayals of the way a woman feels as she struggles through middle age that I have ever seen, and captures exactly the complexity of emotions, realisation and acceptance of this time in our lives.

We were, I suppose, contemporaries and that’s another reason for Wood’s death to hit hard. This isn’t supposed to happen, not at 62. We hadn’t finished. It’s not fair. Who’s going to tell the rest of the world about the sheer ridiculousness of being a middle-aged woman? Who now is there to nail the absurdity and humour of being in your 60s, 70s, 80s…?

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Among the torrent of tweets in my timeline on Wednesday there was this from Jenny Éclair:

And she did but when I was asked to write this piece it was suggested that Victoria Wood was the only noninvisible middle-aged woman in her field, which (thank God) she wasn’t, because without her just maybe we wouldn’t have Jenny Éclair, Jo Brand, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders…  What she was, though, was the best and we will miss her.