Victoria Wood's "Dinnerladies Theme" is One of the Greatest Sad Songs Ever Written
The late, great comedian may have written it as a sitcom theme tune, but that didn't stop the lyrics from being wonderfully sympathetic and quietly devastating.
On more than one occasion I’ve found myself sat in that strangely alert haze of a pill, listening to the "Dinnerladies Theme" tune, telling anyone who’d listen that it was the most beautiful piece of music I’d ever heard.
I knew, even then, even as I was stumbling around living rooms, knocking over ashtrays and pints of Ribena; even as I was struggling to remember the concept of memory let alone any actual memories; even as I became self-aware and realised that my newly-found affection for the colour peach or that little bloke from DIY SOS were the result of a narcotically-induced chemical imbalance, I knew I was right about "Dinnerladies Theme". I knew that I’d never heard a song as quietly devastating, as wonderfully sympathetic, and as incredibly humane as this. I knew, even then, that "Dinnerladies Theme" by Victoria Wood was one of the saddest songs ever written.
When the news broke just yesterday that Victoria Wood had died at the age of 62 after a short battle with cancer, I found myself feeling a lot sadder than I’d expected to. It wasn't that I hadn't expected to have to deal with the death of a comedian who made my mum laugh more than anyone else on the telly. I was obviously aware, on some level, that at some point Victoria Wood was going to die, in the same way I’m aware that my mum is going to die, and that I am going to die. But it was never something I’d consciously prepared for. Yet there it was: Victoria Wood was dead and I was sat at work listening to the theme tune from Dinnerladies.
I’ve not seen Dinnerladies for years now, and my memories of the programme are incredibly hazy. Maxine Peake was in it, and so was Sunita from Coronation Street. One of the characters looked a bit like one of my grandmothers, so watching it was always laced with a strangely sickly kind of nostalgia, as if my still-living grandmother had died and watching Dinnerladies was a way of bringing her back to life. From what I do remember, though, Dinnerladies was a strangely sad sitcom, more Early Doors than House of Fools; one of those sitcoms that plays out semi-realistically, reminding you of the importance of laughter in the dark.
It’s fitting then, that the show’s theme tune was so pristinely melancholy. Even the instrumental version – which was heard throughout the course of the show’s short two series run, with the full-on "CHRIST, I CAN’T TAKE IT!" vocal version only dropping in full on the last ever episode – is a tearjerker. But it’s that special version, the one Victoria Wood, comic songwriter par excellence, saved till last that really does it. It is a sublime and heart-wrenching number about facing up to the reality that life, your life, the literal life you’ve led, and will lead, up until you stumble into the grave, is nothing but a series of failures and disappointments.
Just look at the first verse:
All the dreams that you had when it all lay before you,
All the plans that you made, all the things you would do,
All the schemes that you knew time would bring to fruition,
Did they happen? Not so far, at least not to you,
Have you ever seen anything as affecting? That’s what aging is – that’s how we all feel when we step back and try and examine our own lives. That’s us. That’s you saying you’ll definitely move to New York one day. That’s you saying you’ll change career when you’re 35, honestly, because you don’t want to spend all your life doing this thing you're doing right now. And that's you doing neither. Dreams are just that: they’re illusions that crumble as soon as waking life hovers back into view. The saddest thing I’ve ever heard my mum say came on the day she told me that her life was nothing more than a collection of things she wished she’d done but were too late to do. That’s what this song is about, and that’s something foundational and elemental and innately, inherently human.
The chorus, with its refrain of “Day by day, drops of water wear the stone away / Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday,” encapsulates the sheer nihilism that comes with simply living. Days dissipate and drip into each other and everything you’ve ever wanted to do or say or be is something you tell yourself that you’ll save till tomorrow. There’s always tomorrow. There’ll always be tomorrow. Until there isn’t.
And now Victoria Wood’s gone, the song takes on even more poignancy. This is a broken prayer that calls for the inescapable to become the escapable. It's an incredibly adult acknowledgment of failure and rejection and despondency, that somehow manages to avoid being trite or, worse, self-pitying. The narrator – and really in this case the narrator is the royal 'you' that we all share – is dealing with the fact that the life they’ve been given isn’t the life they wanted. The second verse is no less devastating:
Getting up, getting out, getting on, getting going,
Wears away at the dreams that you hold in your heart,
All the scared little choices you make without knowing,
Take away from the thing that you had at the start,
We’re never the person we hoped we’d be. How could that happen? It was doomed from the start. Christ, who knew that the theme tune to a BBC sitcom would crack the meaning of life?
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