Victoria Wood Was a Comedy Pioneer and a Working Class Hero
Everyone has their 'I didn't realise a famous person dying could make me so sad' moment, and Victoria Wood is mine.
One of Victoria Wood's most famous comedy sketches, broadcast on primetime TV in 1985 to millions of families who barely had four channels to choose from, is brilliantly bleak. It's about a stout 12-year-old called Chrissie who's in training to swim the English Channel. At the end of the four minutes, Chrissie, played by Wood, sets off, alone, into the water, with just a duffel bag full of sandwiches and milkshake cartons for sustenance. The voiceover then tells us that it's been eight days, and she hasn't made it to the other side, and nobody knows where she is. Her parents shrug, assume she'll be OK. They're reminded they have other children; they'd forgotten they existed. It ends on a lingering shot of Chrissie's empty bedroom. If you ignore the laugh track, it feels incredibly contemporary. It's as weird as it is desolate.
It's not dissimilar, in fact, to a Chris Morris sketch from Jam in 2000, 15 years later, in which two casual parents can barely be bothered to identify the body of their missing school-age son. There's no laugh track here, just a woozy, ambient soundtrack, but ultimately the humour comes from the same place: it's so sad and ridiculous and pathetic and futile, that all you can do is laugh.
Everyone has their moment of 'I didn't realise the death of a famous person could make me feel so sad', and Victoria Wood is mine. She's been encased in British heritage as a national treasure, a cosy, comforting northern voice who did that nice song about being spanked on the bottom with a Woman's Weekly, and wrote a sitcom about a canteen. In many respects, that's an honest enough memorial; she made those things, among a lot of other stuff. But to reduce her to a chintzy institution, a teatime treat, ignores the seam of sadness and invention that made her comedy so strange and unique.
She started in the none-more-modern tradition of a TV talent show called New Faces, the 70s equivalent of Britain's Got Talent, as a comedian who played piano and wrote funny-sad songs that showed off just how incredible her writing was. One of her earlier songs, "Fourteen Again", inspired Morrissey to write "Rusholme Ruffians" in the Smiths; the two had a very English meeting of minds in 2013 when she had a cuppa with him for a BBC documentary about tea. Before Alex Turner got swept away by desert sand, cowboy boots and mirrored aviators, back when he used to be considered one of the best writers of his generation, he was frequently compared to Wood. One look at the lyrics for "Fluorescent Adolescent" and it's easy to see why: "You used to get it in your fishnets, now you only get it in your nightdress" is straight out of her songbook.
There was always a sneaky sophistication to her work that crept up unannounced. She wrote about uncomfortable things; she took the piss out of the deliberate vapidity of teenage girls, and wrote long and painful sketches about relationships based on cruelty and dislike. Acorn Antiques, the soap opera spoof which mostly featured Walters' character Mrs Overall falling over and dropping things, ended up with its own behind-the-scenes mockumentary, which parodied the megalomania of celebrity long before Ricky Gervais turned to a similar set-up in Extras. She did daft just as well as she did high concept, too: in the lineage of all-time great comedy writing, Two Soups, which features Walters as a shaky waitress serving up empty bowls in a masterpiece of misunderstanding, is up there with the Two Ronnies' much-loved Four Candles.
The sketch shows they came from, Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV and Victoria Wood, were introduced to me in a charity shop VHS haul in the early 00s. Though they veered off into the glitzy and surreal, they were as staidly British as it gets: blunt, straight-talking, a bit smutty, a bit slapstick, firmly plonked onto the confused streets of England in the 80s. Its sets were shoe shops and chip shops, fancy parties and jumped-up restaurants. This is where she stood out, for me, in writing comedy that talked about class: it mocked snobbery and pretentiousness and ambition and a lack of ambition too, but always warmly and knowingly, never from a place of meanness, always from a place of recognition.
It's telling that Julie Walters, her long-time co-star and writing partner, recently rallied against the lack of opportunities in entertainment for people who aren't wealthy: "Working-class life is not referred to. It's really sad," she told the Guardian in 2015.
It's a reminder that there aren't many working class heroes any more, and it's a reminder that now, there's one less.
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