By Jane Hooper
She’s glorious; a British institution. Victoria Wood is one of the most talented comedians of her generation and the woman who brought us remarkable lines like: “Beat me on the bottom with a Woman’s Weekly.” Now, today, May 19, she turns 60. It seems barely possible. Wood has such a warm and youthful persona, combining genius writing with achingly incisive observation and childish delight. How does she feel about the move into her seventh decade?
“Well, it’s strange because no one thinks of themselves as being old, do they? You think of yourself as being yourself, and that’s somewhere in your 20s and 30s. The good news about it all is that the alternative to being alive at 60 isn’t great, and you do feel more confident when you’re older. Or less bothered about not being confident, in any case.
“You know who you are and you know a lot of things are just not worth worrying about anymore. You kind of forget to worry about things that might have tortured you when you were younger.”
Her list of writing and acting credits is an astonishing tribute to her career. There are documentaries about the obesity crisis, the remnants of the British Empire and – most recently – tea, as well as the stunning sketch show series which won her award after award and gave life to gems like Acorn Antiques, which developed into a stage production.
When I ask which of her projects she feels most proud of, looking back, there’s a deep sigh. “I don’t do anything light-heartedly, or quickly. I’m not good at bashing things out, things take time for me. I end up working all night on things, making minute changes. What I’m saying is – it’s very hard to pick something out because they all mean a lot, they all have a lot of me in them. One thing that seems to have really appealed to people, though, is Acorn Antiques – that’s always had incredible feedback.”
It’s no wonder – the sketch is a master-class in comedy, from the magnificent Mrs Overall, played by Julie Walters, who hovers half-in, half-out of shot, never sure when she’s supposed to come on, then rushing to answer a phone before it’s rung, or help a choking victim before she’s choked, it’s just plain funny characterisation and wonderful satire. And that’s all before the backdrops start swaying and the props fail miserably.
“It’s very British humour,” she says. “We do have an odd delight in things going wrong, and a kind of fear of things that work too well, or are too perfect. We delight in nonsense and human error much more than they do in other countries. We don’t really like perfection at all.”
The irony, of course, is that she created her shambolic masterpiece by orchestrating every move absolutely perfectly.
Wood’s career started when she was still at university – studying drama in Birmingham. Her break came when she won the ITV talent show, New Faces, in 1973, when she was just 20 years old. She worked ad-hoc for a few years after that – doing stand- up comedy and revues in theatres around the country. Then, in 1987, Victoria Wood As Seen On TV was aired and her career sky-rocketed. The programme was a mixture of sketches and songs and starred her regular collaborators and great friends – Julie Walters and Celia Imrie. Wood won a Bafta for the programme and was announced BBC Personality of the Year for 1987.
“It might have looked as if I’d suddenly made it, was an overnight sensation, but there’d been a lot of failure before the success – people never hear about that, they think people who make it to the top cruise through. It was hard work and I got a lot of things wrong, and a lot of rejections. The main thing is to keep going.”
Margaret and Pat and Dinnerladies took her away from the sketch show formula and showed that she was a gifted writer, able to create likeable and real characters with a stroke of her pen. So much of Wood’s comedy has its roots in the seemingly unimportant. She celebrates and delights in ordinariness. In Dinnerladies, the smallest, everyday issues are magnified and gently ribbed by a script which has such a light touch and is infused with such clever humour that the mundane is brought bursting into life.
“People said it would be a challenge to write about dinner ladies, but to me it seemed an obvious thing to do. Everyone knows about dinner ladies – they’re everyone.”
Her work has won her a vast array of awards and plaudits – writing and acting Baftas, and a CBE, but they don’t seem to interest her very much. “I’m not saying I’m not grateful, and I certainly appreciate support and positive feedback, but it’s people laughing that really moves me.
“I like writing a lot more now than I used to because I’ve realised I can do it if I work at it. The fear of the blank page has gone – I know that if I work hard it’ll work.
“The very frustrating thing about writing is that you write something on the page at the beginning of the day and it bears no resemblance at all to what’s in your head.
Then you work at it and eventually it’s like it was in your head all along. It’s a painful process with me, but I’ve grown to like the process a lot more over time.”
Wood owes her success to a great number of things – a natural warmth and likability being two of them – but there’s no doubt that hard work is high up there. “You have to work hard, there’s no way round it,” she says. “I’m not a fan of hard work any more than anyone else is, but I’ve yet to find an alternative that works.”
Does she think people are born funny, or can develop their humour? “I probably think that some people are born funnier than others. I certainly think that having a funny parent helps – my father could be funny whereas mum delighted in the
fact that she had no sense of humour at all. She was quite proud of the fact. My father was very interested in songwriting and comedy. He wrote songs for the insurance company’s annual do. He loved the whole thing about words being able to make people smile.”
And what does the future hold now, for Britain’s premier funny lady, as she turns 60?
“More of the same, I hope,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to do this, I enjoy doing it, and hopefully I can keep on doing it.”