dinnerladies – Christmas

dinner 01

Following directly on from the previous episode, Christmas finds the relationship between Bren (Victoria Wood) and Tony (Andrew Dunn) deepening – although the dramatic cliffhanger from last time (Tony and Bren enjoyed their first kiss, only to be interrupted by Bren’s estranged husband) has to be addressed first.

Although the first series of dinnerladies was traditional sitcom fare (in that each episode had a fairly linear plot) it’s clear that Victoria Wood had more ambitious plans for the second and final series.  Sitcoms with continuing storylines aren’t unique (Brass is a good example of a show with a strong serial theme) but they are unusual.

The growing attraction between Tony and Bren is one of the major plot-threads of series two, but all of the main characters have their own individual story arcs which peak at different times.  Drama mixes with comedy here, as Bren finds herself plagued by self doubt.  She can see a possible future with Tony, but her life to date (exemplified by her disastrous first marriage) makes her convinced that she’ll “bugger it all up” somehow.

Tony initially reassures her that nothing’s changed between them, but then later he becomes distant and distracted – which suggests that he’s lost interest.  He hasn’t of course (instead he’s rushing around attempting to organise an impressive Christmas and Birthday treat for her).  It has to be said that this is a slightly clumsy piece of plotting, since it demands that Bren has to jump to the wrong conclusion several times.

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With Victoria Wood doing the heavy-lifting, drama-wise, the rest of the cast get all the best jokes.  Anita (Shobna Gulati) has her usual stream of bizarre conversational non sequiturs (today involving Disco Monks, thoughts of Michael Aspel, Sooty’s suitability as James Bond and bacon) whilst Jean (Anne Reid) and Dolly (Thelma Barlow) continue their gentle game of one-upmanship.  Jean’s latest attempt to roll back the years (she’s wearing an all-in-one bodyshaper but is having a spot of trouble with the studs) causes much merriment amongst those waiting for bacon – most notably Bob (Bernard Wrigley).

Bob later returns with Jane (Sue Devaney) for a spot of singing and dancing which draws a round of applause from the studio audience.  The unexpected arrival of Bren’s mother, Petula (Julie Walters), also – as always – entertains the audience.  With Janette Krankie in tow as her equally down-at-heel friend, Janice, Petula causes her usual amount of strife and discord, although there’s a nice sense of community as everybody else – in Bren’s absence – elects to send her packing.  If Bren has commitment issues then it’s in no small part due to her mother, who dumped her at an orphanage when she was a child (“I had her too early, there was too much going on. You can’t jive with one hand on a pram handle”).

There’s not a great deal of Stan (Duncan Preston) in this one, which is a shame, although he does have one lovely and typically bizarre monologue.  “Did I ever tell you about the day I had to go to casualty with a dart in me head? If you take my head as a dartboard it went in here (pointing to his chin) low score. Double top I’d have been dead”.  Although there’s method in his madness as he’s attempting to distract Bren, who’s on the verge of leaving Tony and the canteen forever.

But then it’s revealed that Tony hadn’t forgotten to get her a present – in fact he’s managed to smuggle the Black Dyke Band into the canteen ….

This is another of those moments where you have to suspend your disbelief somewhat – not only that Tony could persuade the Black Dyke Band to give up their Christmas Eve but also that they were able to get Bren out of the way just long enough to sneak them all in.  Well it’s Christmas, so let’s be generous.

Slightly iffy plot mechanics aside, it’s still a touching moment and had the series ended here then it would have seemed like a natural conclusion.  But there were four more episodes to come, meaning that everybody’s stories still had a little time to run.

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dinnerladies

din

Victoria Wood was always faintly unimpressed, visually, with the way that dinnerladies turned out. She had pictured it shot with hand-held cameras but was told that it wasn’t possible.  So what she got was something that looked like a traditional sit-com (although this isn’t really any bad thing).  It seems to be an ever-present fixture on Gold, along with the likes of Porridge and Steptoe and Son, and it’s a good indication of dinnerladies’ quality that it doesn’t seem out of place when broadcast alongside the comedy greats of the 1970’s.

Whilst it may have rankled with Wood that the style of the series was so resolutely traditional (particularly when the likes of The Royal Family and The Office were able to quite easily eschew this format) dinnerladies was a sit-com that probably wouldn’t have benefited from the sort of wobbly-cam single camera shooting that was to dominate comedy in the years to come.

It’s written, essentially, as a stage-play with just a single location (and it’s probably not surprising to know that most of the scripts were adapted successfully for several theatre tours).  We may hear about the world outside but the focus remains firmly on what happens inside the canteen.

Wood was able to assemble a first-rate cast, some of whom (Duncan Preston, Ceila Imrie, Julie Walters) had enjoyed a long association with her, whilst others (Thelma Barlow, Andrew Dunn, Shobna Gulati and Maxine Peake) were newcomers.  She obviously knew what Preston, Imrie and Walters could deliver, but the characters of the others (as well as Anne Reid, who had appeared in Victoria Wood – As Seen on TV) would maybe only really begin to develop towards the end of the first series and into the second as she began to tailor their parts based on her experience of working with them.

As the creator, writer and co-producer, Wood had an enormous amount of power that she was able to wield.  But whilst the overall arc of the two series is the story of Bren and Tony, Wood doesn’t dominate each episode and nor does she give herself all the best lines.  She was comfortable enough to sometimes remain in the background as a passive figure, whilst the others enjoyed the biggest laughs.

If the series was shot in a traditional way, the actual recording process was quite different.  It would be shot on a Friday evening and then Wood and co-producer Geoff Posner would view the results, with Wood re-writing the script which would then be re-recorded on the Saturday evening.  Although this was common practice for American sit-coms, it was unusual, if not unique, for a British sit-com.

It would be lovely one day to have DVD sets released with both the Friday and Saturday recordings, so that we can see exactly what was changed, but I’m not going to hold my breath.  The DVD releases we have are resolutely bare-bones, with no commentaries or special features, which indicates that Victoria Wood isn’t particularly keen to spend a great deal of time analyzing her work.