YOU feel that Victoria would have something to say about this. Dead at 62 and there she is sharing the headlines with the Queen on her 90th birthday. Yet she isn’t here to supply a sharp quip, a reminder of how sad it is when someone funny dies.
Victoria is on nearly all the front pages, but only The New Day points out that she mattered because she made women laugh – “Goodbye to the woman who made women laugh.”
She made men laugh too of course, made this man laugh very much sometimes. But she was a funny woman who legitimised female humour. Arriving when she did, Wood turned up in a stale comedy landscape over which the tattered ghosts of mother-in-law jokes and dolly-bird sexism still wandered. The girl from Bury, Lancashire also offered something more direct, something more properly funny, than the Oxbridge comedians of the time.
She turned mainstream comedy in a different direction – one that harked back to earlier ages in a way, not surprising as her heroine had been Joyce Grenfell, the comedian and knitter of monologues.
French and Saunders were around too, of course, but somehow they weren’t as funny; they tried too hard, wrapping themselves in knowing cleverness. Wood’s skill lay in using her cleverness to be very funny in a very northern way.
Wood was always aware of her role as a northerner invading foreign southern fields. Hence the line she gave Susie Blake’s fragrantly snooty TV announcer: “We’d like to apologise to our viewers in the north. It must be awful for you.”
The Daily Mirror doesn’t quite get it right, I’d say, calling Wood the “Gentle genius of comedy.” No doubt about the genius – as a stand-up, musician and TV dramatist. Yet I’m not sure about ‘gentle’. There was a grain of toughness in her comedy, and fools were exposed to the full sandblasting wither of her wit.
As for being the woman who made women laugh, she once did a longish routine about breast-feeding that almost finished my wife off. It wouldn’t have been a bad way to go, laughing at Victoria Wood. But now she is the one who has gone, leaving the world a sadder place.
As is so often the case, the critic and writer Clive James puts his finger on it when he said that Wood “changed the field for women and indeed for everybody, because very few of the men were trying hard enough as writers before she came on the scene and showed them what penetrating social humour should actually sound like”.
Ah, yes – her humour was penetrating, and that is not the gentle crown the Mirror would place on her head. Socially observant humour has to have something about it. And in Wood’s hands it was also just very funny.
Sally Wainwright’s TV drama Happy Valley is rightly praised for putting two middle-aged women at its battered heart – yet in a sense Wood got their first with Dinnerladies. Her canteen comedy was dominated by women – apologies to York actor Andrew Dunn – and they were mostly menopausal, giving rising to lines such as “And where has it got you, having a pelvic floor like a bulldog clip?”
During interviews, Wood often spoke about her childhood in a way that was very amusing while also summoning a sense of loneliness too. “I was brought up in one room with a television, a piano and a sandwich,” she told one interviewer. “I just lived on my own. My parents were in other rooms. My father and mother didn’t watch television at all.”
I do love that line – “a television, a piano and a sandwich”. So funny with her delivery, yet rather sad too. She went to Bury grammar school, where she wasn’t “completely unpopular”. “But I didn’t feel I was in the mainstream with people who were really having a wonderful time … I’d look at other girls and wish I could be like them, interested in boys, meeting in the Wimpy bar on Saturday mornings and going to discos.”
Very funny, a little sad perhaps, sharp as you like and yet capable of great warmth. And we were the ones having a wonderful time watching her.