Why few comedians can match the precision-engineered satire of Victoria Wood

“Woman says bollocks near Cheadle” is funnier than “Woman says bollocks in Cheadle”.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

I doubt that an Xpelair has been the punchline of many jokes but Victoria Wood knew that there was something intrinsically hilarious about that brand name. It pops up in a reeled-off list of things in an early sketch – coconut matting, holidays in Guernsey – that might obtain in an aspirational home in the mid-1980s. Xpelair. Or “Xpelurr” in Wood’s musical Prestwich accent, which makes the word a thousand times funnier, probably because that pronunciation itself contains a mini impression of it whirring away haphazardly in the kitchen.

This two-part special (11.30am, 18 and 25 May), stuffed with fantastic unheard Wood recordings, is all the better for being presented by the actress Rebecca Front, whose Vivienne Westwoodish “fin de siècle ghost in the machine” outfit – utilising a distributor cap from a Ford Mondeo – in Knowing Me Knowing You With Alan Partridge was pure Wood. She gets stuck in right away with some close analysis, praising Wood’s intrinsic understanding that the line “Woman says bollocks near Cheadle” is funnier than “Woman says bollocks in Cheadle”. Just why is that, ponders Front? See how it “falls in the right way”, with a certain kind of rhythm.

You could say that “near Cheadle” is funnier because it shows more precision engineering on the preposition, and therefore sounds more authentic. Wood knew that provincial-English-place-name-as-bathetic-punchline is not funny enough. (Kenneth Tynan was complaining about that particular gag reflex as far back as 1955). The “near” is more important to the joke than Cheadle. It’s what stops it from being Jimmy Carr.

Front makes the vital point that Wood was “somebody that everybody could relate to”. “That’s art, that is,” she sighs. Most of our great female comedians these days struggle to find a place on panel shows, or are starring in Motherland and Fleabag – a type of sitcom that always seems to me to be aimed at itself, and nobody else. There’s no attempt in those shows to reach out. Satire isn’t really satire when the only people it’s satirising are the ones who are watching it. That’s not really comedy – that’s a description of insiderness. The opposite of Wood, in fact. We’ve never missed her more.

Victoria Wood: From Soup to Nuts (BBC Radio 4)

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war