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Wood, Victoria (1953-)

Actor, Writer, Producer

Main image of Wood, Victoria (1953-)

There was little in Victoria Wood's early career as a writer and performer of slight but perceptive comic songs on New Faces (ITV, 1973-78) and That's Life (BBC, 1973-94) to suggest that she would one day become perhaps the most cherished and respected funny woman in Britain.

Born on 19 May 1953 in Prestwich, Greater Manchester, she was still a drama undergraduate at Birmingham University when she got her New Faces break in 1974. But it was not until the tail end of the 1970s that she made her next breakthrough. Her first attempt at drama was playing on stage at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre when it was spotted by Granada head of drama Peter Eckersley, who invited her to recreate it for television. Talent's (ITV, tx. 5/8/1979) sharp but witty exploration of showbusiness's lower echelons gave notice that Wood was more than just a Pam Ayres with a piano. With its sequel, Nearly a Happy Ending (tx. 1/6/1980), it also began her most enduring partnership, with Julie Walters (a close friend since the early 1970s). A third play for Granada, Happy Since I Met You (ITV. tx. 9/8/1981), twinned Walters with another loyal collaborator, Duncan Preston, for a slight but touching romance that was as much about the downs as the ups of young love. 'Bittersweet' was already one of the signature notes of Wood's writing.

With encouragement from Eckersley, Wood and Walters were given a show of their own on New Year's Day 1981, followed by a self-titled seven-part series in 1982. Wood wrote the stand-up, songs and sketches alone (Walters insists she has never contributed a word to Wood's scripts) and, while uneven in execution and sometimes crude in form, they showed that her talent for clever wordplay was coming along nicely. Between pilot and series, however, Eckersley died, and without his support, Wood had no desire to remain with Granada.

For more than two years, she did the dispiriting round of celebrity quiz shows. In 1985, however, Wood moved to the BBC for the series that would finally establish her in the major league. Victoria Wood - As Seen on TV (1985-87) realised her early promise, showcasing the close observational comedy, skilful characterisation and well-turned dialogue that was becoming her hallmark. It also highlighted a complex and very distinctive voice - cynical and wry, with an acute, often affectionate but sometimes quite savage analysis of human relations. As Seen on TV's most memorable creation, though, was a more gentle pastiche: 'Acorn Antiques' was a lovingly-crafted and hilarious homage to inept daytime soap operas, full of pitiful acting, ludicrous dialogue and implausible plot twists.

By now, Wood had assembled her own formidable repertory company - around a core of Celia Imrie, Duncan Preston and the ever-dependable Walters - each with an almost telepathic understanding of her unique brand of characterisation. These players, supplemented by Ann Reid (widow of Wood's former mentor, Peter Eckersley), and a few others, would populate most of her subsequent work, beginning with her next BBC series, Victoria Wood (1989). Its six comic playlets featured characters adrift in unfamiliar social situations - a health farm, a disastrous package holiday, a daytime chat show - and at the mercy of an array of petty tyrants, against whom the astute and sensible Victoria leads the rebellion.

Her first drama for 13 years was more ambitious. Feature length, with production values to match, Pat and Margaret (BBC, tx. 11/9/1994) charted the reunion after 27 years of two chalk-and-cheese sisters, one a motorway services waitress and the other a top American soap actress who has drawn a veil over her humble past. It was Wood's most convincing and poignant work to date, and saw her, not for the last time, compared to the master of understated social commentary, Alan Bennett.

dinnerladies (BBC, 1998-2000), her first and, to date, only sitcom, was another triumph. In stark contrast to the restless grotesquery of Britcom's emerging new wave (as epitomised by The League of Gentlemen, BBC, 1999-2002), Wood's series, set in the unpromising environment of a factory canteen, was tender and played to traditional strengths - flawless dialogue, razor-sharp one-liners, winningly eccentric characters, strong performances. dinnerladies was striking, too, in its empathy for its (mostly female) characters, its instinctive respect for the working classes and its emancipatory acknowledgment of post-menopause sexuality.

Like Pat and Margaret, Housewife, 49 (ITV, tx. 10/12/2006) suggested that she might be at her best in the longer drama format. Based on the wartime Mass Observation diaries of a Lancashire housewife who found release from her domestic gloom in the Women's Voluntary Service, it was more sombre than her usual tone and, separated from her regular collaborators, she gave what was probably the most confident and nuanced performance of her career.

Wood's comedy can appear conventional, even old-fashioned, at first sight - it's hard to imagine that she was once, albeit briefly, linked to the alternative comedy scene. She avoids grand political statements, preferring her characters to lead her audience to a more complex truth. As a social satirist, she works with a fine brush - more an Austen than a Dickens, and a world away from a Ben Elton. Her humour is grounded in the everyday: her characters, however exaggerated, are never implausible, and her concerns are those of ordinary experience. She reserves her most withering attacks for the arrogance, selfishness and vapidity of modern Britain - all characteristics that more expressly political writers might have blamed on the legacy of Thatcherism. Wood's, however, is more a small 'p' politics; though her sympathies might be identifiably left-wing, she paints such failings as personal rather than purely systematic.

But it is her gift for rich and convincing dialogue that really marks her out from the mainstream. Her wordplay is fundamentally Lancastrian - "You can't deny that most of our best comics have come from the North", she has said, "There's something about the way people construct language and people's attitude". An understanding of language as defining of identity is key to her work - gulfs of communication are a recurring feature, while her pompous characters declare themselves by their gruesome misuses of the English language (she was satirising the grim rise of 'management-speak' long before most commentators had even begun to notice it).

The calibre of her co-stars - from her regular cohorts to occasionals like Patricia Routledge, Pete Postlethwaite, Jim Broadbent and Thora Hird, and to the many others who have seized the opportunity to inhabit her characters over the years - testifies to the degree of respect she is afforded by her peers, while for all her remoteness from the comic misanthropy of The Office (BBC, 2001-03) or Little Britain (BBC, 2003- ), her appearance in The League of Gentleman's Apocalypse (d. Steve Bendelack, 2005), suggests she also has currency among the younger generation. And although she once proclaimed she would retire at 50, her most recent work indicates that she is not only far from spent but may be entering a new, still more fertile phase in her career.

Mark Duguid

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Pat and Margaret (1994)Pat and Margaret (1994)

Comic drama about two very different sisters reunited after 27 years

Thumbnail image of Talent (1979)Talent (1979)

Victoria Wood's first TV play exposes the seedy end of showbusiness

Thumbnail image of Victoria Wood (1989)Victoria Wood (1989)

Six short comic plays featuring Wood and her regular cast

Thumbnail image of Victoria Wood - As Seen on TV (1985-86)Victoria Wood - As Seen on TV (1985-86)

Hit sketch show that spawned celebrated spoof soap Acorn Antiques

Thumbnail image of Wood and Walters (1982)Wood and Walters (1982)

First TV series for Victoria Wood, with long-term collaborator Julie Walters

Thumbnail image of dinnerladies (1998-2000)dinnerladies (1998-2000)

Victoria Wood's only sitcom, set in a chaotic factory canteen

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Funny Women on TVFunny Women on TV

Comedy with a female slant

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Imrie, Celia (1952-)Imrie, Celia (1952-)


Thumbnail image of Walters, Julie (1950-)Walters, Julie (1950-)