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Date: 21/04/16

"Seventy-Two Baps, Connie; You Slice, I'll Spread"

This is turning into a grievous year.

Photo of Victoria Wood

Victoria Wood
Comedian, actress, playwright, songwriter
b. 19 May 1953, d. 20 April 2016

Victoria Wood was without doubt one of the greatest comedic talents of the past fifty years, irrespective of gender.

It wasn't just her skill at performing stand-up - her success at which included selling out no less a venue than the Royal Albert Hall for fifteen straight nights - but her ability to write comic material which drew on a sharp eye for characters and character types combined with a compassion for even the most flawed of those characters. They were caricatures to some extent (and let us remember that 'caricature' doesn't mean 'unreal' or 'bogus'; simply that aspects of the person portrayed have been thrown into sharp relief by the portrayal), but they were never grotesques; Wood was too humane, too shrewd a writer to allow them to be that. Even the apparently unsympathetic characters, such as that played by Julie Walters in Pat And Margaret, was written in a way which led the viewer to some degree of empathy with her insecurities and weaknesses.

All this gave her material a grounding so deep in a form of gentle realism that we, her audience, felt not just an identity with the characters but an acknowledgement that we actually knew (or had known) people like that in our own lives. If we weren't actually those people ourselves, of course.

And she had a great ear for the way that people actually speak and act, whether it was the styles and accents of her native Lancashire or their equivalents amongst the 'creative' people with whom she came into contact later. This again means that the audience can fully identify with the portrayals of such as the grieving widow who utters the line I have used as the title of this piece.

Her meticulousness in delineating characters was matched by the scrupulousness with which she wrote her scripts. Seldom was a word wasted, rarely was a line too long. This facility was spotted quite early on in her career by Clive James; in a review of one of her early television plays where he describes the lead character (played by Wood herself) on the phone to the emergency help-line at Weightwatchers saying, "Please help me! I'm sitting at the kitchen extension staring at a Marks & Spencer's individual Spotted Dick!", James noted that it was that one word - 'individual' - which made the line truly funny, and that in knowing this Wood had what it took as a comedy writer and performer.

In her writing, especially for ensemble work, she was also most generous in not hogging the laughs. It didn't matter to her who out of what was, in effect, her own repertory company (comprising such as Celia Imrie and Duncan Preston in addition to La Walters) got the big laugh so long as it was the right laugh from the right character in the right place for the story. In this, the description of 'playwright' seems far more apt for her than that of mere 'scriptwriter'.

This might all have been irrelevant - a mere technical adroitness - had she not been what she was; truly funny. So many of her lines - whether uttered by her as herself or by one of her characters - have become part of the phraseology of our society even shorn of their original context, which is surely the sign of a great talent. Phrases such as, "'Ave yer seen me friend? Kimmmm-ber-leh?", or "Is it on the trolleh?" have floated free of their original moorings and now hover unobtrusively in the air, ready to enter the mind of anyone who is trying to locate an acquaintance or deal with the obduracy of those with a powerful sense of their own entitlement to What They Want And Right Now.

Much of it was, of course, a particularly British humour; one which probably wouldn't have carried well to such alien territories as the US. Used to being spoon-fed by performers who long ago realised that it never fails to pay to underestimate your audience's speed of comprehension, Wood's lines are too quick, too wordy for them. In addition to which, the word-play (and its ally, the narrow avoidance of an outright reference by hinting at it, such as in the hoot-worthy line from Mens Sana In Thingummy Doodah - uttered by who else but Julie W.? - "Mrs. Fernihough can't be here, she had a slight accident and scratched her Volvo.") plays to an essentially English tradition, one in which the assonances and homonymities of the language are used to their fullest potential, as in the example I've just quoted.

In all this, her songwriting tends to be under-appreciated, except in the case of her openly and deliberately funny songs, such as the famous Ballad Of Barry And Freda (Let's Do It) which has been widely shared and quoted from in the past few hours. But many of her songs - whilst superficially funny in the same ways - had an underlying pathos and wistfulness which made them connect with the audience in ways which they - the audience, that is - might not quite have expected to encounter. And in her songs - as in her sketches, stand-up routines and plays - there was a precision and economy of expression and an attention to detail which augmented the power of the humour.

I will end this sad farewell with two clips which demonstrate but a small part of her talent. Firstly, a section of her 1988 London Weekend Television special An Audience With Victoria Wood in which she plays the part of a market researcher asking questions of a passing shopper; a routine which includes, just short of the one-minute mark, one of the funniest lines I've ever heard:

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And here's what I think is my favourite Victoria Wood song, in which she wishes she could have, as it were, more than one 'go' on the roundabout of life. The observations are, of course, spot-on, and the rhyming is on a par with Coward and Lehrer at their best:

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