The news of Victoria Wood’s death at the age of just sixty two has come as yet another unpleasant shock in a year that has already seen the departure of far too many talented people.
Following her television debut on New Faces in 1974 and a handful of appearances on That’s Life! (1975-1976), she had to wait a little while longer for her first meaningful break. This came in 1978 when she was invited by director David Leland to pen a play for a season he was planning at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. Although she’d never written a play before, with the confidence of youth Wood dashed off Talent in next to no time. She was later to admit that “I kept writing plays after that, but they were all terrible and never saw the light of day.”
Set in a seedy Northern club, it follows the misadventures of Julie, keen to hit the heights of showbiz, and her socially awkward friend Maureen. In 1979 it was recorded for television with Wood as Maureen and Julie Walters as Julie. This was a key moment, as Walters became the first of Wood’s “rep” company of actors (later to include the likes of Duncan Preston and Celia Imrie). With a host of strong supporting performances from the likes of Bill Waddington, Nat Jackley and Kevin Lloyd, Talent was a more than impressive debut.
Wood and Walters would also feature in another Wood-penned play, Nearly a Happy Ending (also 1979) and off the back of these plays it probably seemed logical to give them their own sketch series, Wood & Walters (1981/82). Although something of a curate’s egg, it’s also fascinating viewing due to its obvious similarities to the later BBC show Victoria Wood: As Seen On TV (1985 -1987). Possibly part of the slightly off-key feeling about Wood & Walters is because neither of them were household names at the time – so the audience tended to be appreciative, rather than effusive (in some ways it’s similar to the polite and muted reaction to the early Monty Python shows). By the time of As Seen on TV, Wood was a much more recognisable figure and whilst the material was stronger, her increasing bond with the audience no doubt also helped to generate a more positive response.
Following the end of As Seen on TV, Wood obviously felt that she didn’t want to write any further sketch series (although she’d produce a number of Christmas Specials over the next few decades). Her next major work was Victoria Wood (1989). A series of six unconnected half-hour sitcoms, it was politely received but never garnered the same critical reputation that As Seen on TV did. Which is a pity, as it’s full of Wood’s trademark wit and remains one of the undiscovered gems of her television career.
During the time that she was writing and performing on television, she was also pursing a career as one of the nation’s top live stand-up comedians – which may explain why her credits for a large part of the 1990’s are fairly sparse. But there was Pat and Margaret in 1994 (a Screen One play with another memorable role for Julie Walters) and between 1998 and 2000 she would write the show which will probably remain her signature series – dinnerladies.
Gathering some of her trusted collaborators around her (as well as some fresh blood) dinnerladies was a fine ensemble piece. Wood was always a very unselfish writer – which can clearly be seen across the course of the series’ sixteen episodes. If dinnerladies is essentially about the journey of Bren and Tony, every other main character is still allowed their chance to shine and often Wood gave the biggest laugh lines to other members of the cast, rather than hogging all the best jokes for herself. Still a regular on Gold, there seems no doubt that dinnerladies will be one of those handful of sitcoms (like Dad’s Army, so beloved by Wood herself) which will endure for decades to come.
Tonight, I plan to dig out Talent for a rewatch, which I think is a suitable tribute to a great British comedy writer and actor. RIP.