Victoria Wood: 1953-2016

Victoria Wood was an original, who did many things and all of them brilliantly. WGGB Chair Gail Renard pays tribute to an incredible writer, national treasure and long-time member of the Writers' Guild
Victoria Wood

Victoria Wood was an original who did many things and all of them brilliantly. She was an incredible writer and composer, as well as a unique stand-up talent who, on her own with a piano, could keep an audience laughing for two hours. In everything she did, her Lancashire voice and vision came over loud and proud. Whether writing plays, television or films, Wood understood British people; their loves, lusts, foibles… and, more importantly, celebrated them all.

Wood wrote her first play for the theatre, Talent,  in 1978. It was spotted by then Head of Drama at Granada TV, Peter Eckersley, who asked Wood to adapt it for television. Julie Walters was cast in the lead and one of the most joyful and lasting partnerships of stage and screen began.

To list Victoria Wood’s work you only have to think of your favourite shows. Wood was the master of sketch writing and performing. Her characters were as carefully developed in a two-minute sketch as they were in a full-length play. Victoria Wood As Seen On TV  gave us Acorn Antiques and the beloved Mrs Overall. Acorn Antiques went on to become a hit West End musical.

Wood wrote and starred in Dinnerladies, a funny, touching sit com with seven – count ’em, seven –  female leads. There were her films for television, Pat and Margaret, and her BAFTA award winning adaptation, Housewife, 49. Women were always at the centre of her work.

Victoria Wood had been a WGGB member since 1991, and was also the recipient of the 2011 Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award for Outstanding Contribution to Writing.

Our condolences to her family and friends. Many people are called national treasures; Victoria Wood was one.

The following was a speech given by fellow writer and WGGB member Peter Bowker, honouring Victoria Wood for Outstanding Contribution to Writing at the Writers’ Guild Awards 2011

I am honoured this evening to be presenting the special award for contribution to writing to Victoria Wood.

Sadly, as Eamonn Andrews used to say, Victoria can’t be with us here tonight but as I had written the speech anyway I thought I’d press ahead. Because I know there’s nothing a group of writers like more than listening to another writer reading his own work out loud.

It’s right up there, isn’t it, with hearing about other writers’ green-lights?

Victoria is being recognised here tonight for her astonishing writing career. As well as a great writer she is of course a great actor, a brilliant stand-up comedian, a peerless comic performer, a wonderful musician and songwriter and, as I have discovered, a demanding and brilliant collaborator. I have to say, if she wasn’t so lovely I would really hate her fucking guts.

Her skill as a dramatist encompasses not just the magnificent characterisation in the likes of Housewife, 49, Pat and Margaret and Dinnerladies, but also in even the shortest of comic sketches where her attention to detail, to character and, above all else, to language, is both bewildering and a little demoralising for the rest of us.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that three things got me through the dreadful Thatcherite 1980s: Brookside, The Smiths and Victoria Wood.

I’m a little nervous to bring up the subject of politics. Not least because in one of Victoria’s short plays she lampooned a Northern working-class writer who now lived in Chiswick. So guilty did he feel about leaving his roots behind that he spent his time pontificating about the state of the working classes – “My people”, he called them. Played by Jim Broadbent, I remember he had written a gritty play about the miners’ strike called Buttock.

But, at the risk of sounding like the writer of Buttock, I was a special needs teacher in Leeds throughout the 1980s and felt hopelessly out of step with the values of the time. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Victoria’s humour and her take on life seemed to me to represent an alternative take on Britain and what it meant to be British.

Because, at the very heart of Victoria’s writing is warmth, humanity and humour. She celebrates the comic absurdity of everyday life. She commemorates the ordinary and her comedy is emphatically the comedy of inclusion. If that makes her writing sound cosy and reassuring then it isn’t. It is incisive, sharp and targets those who are blind to their own absurdities, by which, of course, I mean every one of us.

Two years ago Victoria asked me to write Eric and Ernie. This seemed to me an act of extraordinary generosity. Writers don’t generally hand a story as good as this over to other writers, do they?

Victoria, on the other hand, handed me the story of the young Eric and Ernie and their mother Sadie and let me get on with it.

Victoria proved to be an incisive, funny and generous script editor. That could be the first time that phrase has ever been uttered by anyone in this room but it’s actually true.

I have a theory about great writers that they create a world so successfully that when people are around them they start to behave and speak like characters in their plays. It is as though they have imagined a world so vivid that there is some overspill into the real world.

I saw evidence of this in the form of my 85-year-old mum when she met Victoria after seeing her latest play, That Day We Sang, at the Manchester Festival.

Victoria took us for tea afterwards. Like any writer after a show she needed reassurance that this new play of hers worked. I told her it did and I wasn’t lying, it is a beautiful, moving and funny play about love and redemption.

My mum, being a Northern woman of a certain age, doesn’t really do effusive praise.

She said she liked it well enough, and then the killer pause, the dread sentence that all writers fear, “I tell you what I do like though”. This is always a bad thing to hear. Worse still when it’s your mum saying it… “I tell you what I do like, though, Victoria, that Popstar to Operastar. I picked Little Joe at the start and he really came through for me. Have you seen it?” and then, just in case Vic hadn’t got the message: “Now THAT is good.”

Victoria didn’t miss a beat, said that she hadn’t seen the show herself and, I would hope, filed away the moment for later use.

Victoria cannot be here tonight but we are going to celebrate her career so far by showing a small selection of clips from her astonishing body of work.

Ladies and gentleman, here to accept the special award for contribution to writing on Victoria Wood’s behalf is the producer of Housewife, 49 and Eric and Ernie, Mr Piers Wenger.

Above photo of Victoria Wood by MAG