Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Victoria Wood (1953-2016)

Today, another of my heroes has passed away. Writer, singer, comedian. Victoria Wood was more to me than just a person off t'telly

I was only nine years old when I first stumbled across her brilliance. My Mum had taped episode six of Victoria Wood As Seen on TV one evening as she had been otherwise engaged - probably doing a dash of Shakespeare at the local AmDram ("It may be Hamlet, but it's got to be fun, fun, fun!")

I watched this one episode repeatedly and insisted on my friends watching it too. Luckily, the series was to be repeated later in the year so I was able to watch it all prior to the second series the following year.

I remember one particular evening when, although sent to bed early (it was a school night) I would listen to the show on TV through the floorboards of my bedroom. I still recall becoming quite emotional after hearing Victoria sing the sad song 'Crush' through a few inches of wood and some tufted-shag.

Well, I became obsessed. No one else had touched in to my sense of humour quite like Victoria (and never has since). I watched everything I could lay my hands on (repeatedly), grew to know sketches off by heart. I had books, videos, cassettes, and then one day.... I got to meet her.

It was Tuesday 19th March 1991. It was at Wolverhampton Civic Hall. It was, quite possibly, the most exciting night of my life.

I laughed so hard that evening. Afterwards, I went back stage to get my copy of Up to You, Porky signed and I gave her a bunch of flowers and a letter.

I had no idea that she would respond AND it would begin an eighteen year correspondence.

Her first letter was brief (postmarked 9th April 1991 - I have kept all the envelopes! I may use the stamps to make a novelty lampshade one day).

I'd enquired about a certain dress from one of the sketches (Whither the Arts? - 'Bessie!') and had also invited myself 'round for tea and cheesecake.

Dear Ben - I'm afraid I don't have the orange dress anymore - I think Pat borrowed it for EastEnders. Love Victoria. PS The cheesecake is in the larder ready.

And so our little pen-pal relationship began. We wrote back and forth frequently and she even helped me out with my A-Level English Language course when I was writing about comedy. I studied an episode of Acorn Antiques and Victoria helped with questions I had about the show and her approach to comedic writing. Ultimately, my study earned me top grades and I owe some of that to Victoria. She was so kind and generous.

I met her multiple times after that and she even recognised me in a public place once! (...people hide in shop doorways when they see me coming because they feel inadequate!)

There was even a time when she gave me permission to perform an omnibus edition of her 'Carl & Gail' sketches at a revue night alongside my friend Gaynor Wall. (I played Carl, obviously.)

Gail

Carl... do you know the facts of life?

Carl

Some of 'em

Gail

Which ones?

Carl

Gravy. I know how that's made... and I know where me Mam's apron is!

Apparently, it went down quite well - we even got a mention in the Matlock Mercury.

Victoria Wood As Seen on TV is still heralded today as one of the finest sketch show comedies in British history (it's true!) and I never ever tire of it. It has always stood proudly at the top of my 'Favourite TV Shows of All-Time' list and will undoubtedly remain so.

Then, in the late '90s, she wrote and starred in one of the most quotable sitcoms ever - the sublime dinnerladies. Again, it only lasted two series (like ASOTV) and that was due to Victoria's insistence on not outstaying her welcome. Some TV shows go on and on to eventually become stale. Vic liked things to remain fresh.

What made Victoria so outstanding with her writing is that she never hogged the best lines for herself. She always new her ensemble so perfectly that she could write to their abilities. Each character she writes has a beautiful depth beyond the outward caricature. Victoria could do pathos (and bathos!) like no one else.

Victoria's body of work was more vast than some realise. She is known, of course for her comedic songs and her superb ear for dialogue, but she was also a great dramatist. She won two BAFTAs in 2007 for her heartbreakingly beautfiul film Housewife, 49 based on the diaries of Nella Last - one for her writing and one for her performance as Nella.

This just added to her somewhat cluttered mantelpiece of glittering awards thrown at her over the years.

Just within the last hour or so, I have had numerous friends text, email, message me. Everyone who knows me well understands what Victoria Wood meant to me. She was my idol, my mentor, my Comedy God. I am tearing up as I type this.

I feel rather miserable by the fact that our correspondence dwindled and we didn't write for the remaining few years of her life - but I hope she knows that I truly was one of her biggest fans.

Maybe I have missed some other things to say, but I am a little overcome with grief. Maybe another time.

To paraphrase Mrs Overall; "Crying won't bring her back, Miss Babs!"

But, my god, I wish it would...

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