In tribute to Victoria Wood who died today, I’m posting this interview I did with her in 1998, for Attitude magazine. An historically funny – and very smart – northern woman.
‘The Northern Woman,’ said Alan Bennett, who knows about these things, ‘is like the Galapagos Turtle—she’s an entirely different species.’ In the eighties, Victoria Wood’s As Seen on TV was the HMS Beadle of comedy, bringing us bizarre flora and fauna never seen before on telly. Creatures like Bossy Northern Woman: ‘Make way! I’m a diabetic!’ Common Northern Woman: ‘Is it on trolley an’ can yer point to it?’. And Very Common Northern Woman: ‘I’ve got ‘ide and ‘eal on me lovebites—I were shit-faced on a pint of brandy and Babycham last night!’
Since then, these exotics have become naturalised to the British TV landscape and Victoria Wood has become a national institution. And like many national institutions, she hasn’t done so well in the Nineties, a decade which turned out to belong to the Southern Fash Mag Slag.
But now everyone’s bored with the Nineties and the Eighties are back and so is Ms Wood, with a square meal sitcom called ‘Dinner Ladies’ that makes you wonder why you ever bothered with insubstantial London tarts. Dinner Ladies is a perfect excuse for getting an eclectic bunch of Northern Women together to fill a lot of torpedo rolls and serve up a lot of classic Woodisms: ‘…don’t get me wrong,’ says one middle aged lady to another, ‘I’ve nothing against ‘Delilah’, it’s just Tom Jones squatting in his swimming trunks on the cover of TV Times that I have a problem with…’.
Did she consciously aim for a Beckettian standard of dialogue? ‘Well!’ laughs Wood, swallowing the last of her Welsh Rarebit, rubbing her fingers over her plate and looking away to the right, eyes raised, in that slightly shy but determined way she has. ‘I wanted them to have conversations which shot past one another and they’re never concluded. People overhear the end of conversations that are left unexplained. I wanted a mixture of high comedy and naturalism.’
Wood in person is a mixture of friendly unpretentiousness—laughing loudly and generously—with a quietly confident smartness. She’s also of course northern, but in a mild, lower middle class Lancashire-bred and BBC-educated way.
Wood’s father was an insurance underwriter in Preston. She had one brother and two sisters, but they didn’t mix. It was a lonely childhood. ‘We lived in a very strange house on a hill with no neighbours and no visitors. I just stayed in my room and watched the TV and played the piano. Sometimes my father would come in and watch a bit of TV standing up, as if he were just about to leave, but my mother wouldn’t watch any telly at all. In fact, it used to go back to the shop in the summer to encourage us to pick bluebells in the meadow, or something.’
Wood didn’t turn to that other staple of desperate youth: pop music. ‘It seemed to me to be about dressing up and going out and meeting boys, which scared me. It wasn’t until I was fifteen that I had a boyfriend or any friends at all. I felt like I’d been accepted for membership of the human race.’
In addition to her own humanity, Wood discovered a passion for performing and studied drama at Birmingham University. Even before she graduated she was performing in folk clubs and appearing on Pebble Mill, followed by ‘a really awful talent programme on ITV with Lenny Henry’. Almost single-handedly, Wood invented the British female TV stand-up.
But it seems a bit extreme—to spend your youth as a bedroom recluse and your adulthood as a stand-up comedian? ‘Yes,’ she agrees, nodding, ‘but it’s very therapeutic,’ she explains. ‘You have to bond with the audience: this is my world, do you get it? When they say, “Yeah!” It’s great, especially when you feel that you live in a world that doesn’t really get you….’
Perhaps this is the reason why so many gay fans ‘get you’ to the point of obsession? I have several gay friends who can recite whole seasons of As Seen on TV…
Wood nods. She’s heard about these cases. ‘Flattering as it is, it was never intended. That would just be patronising and dire. Mind, I did wonder about the signals I was giving out: I had short hair and a big suit. These enormous lesbians used to come round the stage door and they’d be wearing the same suit and the same hair!’
Having gay fans can mean that you’re incredibly sophisticated and witty, or… ‘… it can mean that you’re just a really sad middle-aged woman,’ laughs Wood finishing my sentence. ‘But I’m not dependent on that relationship for my own self-esteem in the way that some gay icons who are very responsive to their gay fans are. I’m not in that world. I have my own life. I don’t inhabit my own TV series.’
‘What I tend to get are very intelligent creative gay boys of 15-16 who really like my sketches. I think part of the reason why gay men respond so well is because camp is partly about echoing, in exaggerated form, the way some women speak, which is what I do in my work.’
I ask about a famously intelligent and creative fan of Wood’s whose work also echoes the way extraordinary ordinary women speak. ‘Oh yes,’ she recalls, ‘Morrissey used to write to me a lot. He invited me to his house once. I didn’t go because, well, I don’t visit people’s houses if I don’t know them. It just doesn’t seem right.’
Of course, Bossy Northern Woman would have been round there in a flash, poking around in Moz’s cupboards and measuring the pile on his shag.