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dinnerladies (1998-2000)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of dinnerladies (1998-2000)
Good Fun/Pozzitive Television for BBC1, 12/11/1999-27/1/2000
16 x 30 min eps in two series, colour
DirectorGeoff Posner
ProducersVictoria Wood
 Geoff Posner
ScriptVictoria Wood
MusicVictoria Wood
Arranged byDavid Firman

Cast: Victoria Wood (Bren); Andrew Dunn (Tony); Anne Reid (Jean); Thelma Barlow (Dolly); Celia Imrie (Philippa); Shobna Gulati (Anita); Maxine Peake (Twinkle); Duncan Preston (Stan); Julie Walters (Petula)

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Days in the life of a Manchester factory canteen.

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Victoria Wood was a quarter of a century into her television career before she embarked on her first sitcom, but dinnerladies (the series was too modest even for a capital D) proved worth the wait. Deceptively conventional, and certainly at a right angle to the more self-consciously innovative The League of Gentlemen (BBC, 1999-2002) or The Office (BBC, 2001-03), dinnerladies stood proudly without gimmickry or pizzazz, resting instead on the quality of its writing, performances and characters.

At the apex of the series' determinedly ordinary works canteen are the dependable, big-hearted Bren and canteen manager Tony, doing his best to retain his dignity among the female staff: dippy, over-sensitive Anita; stroppy teenager Twinkle and chalk-and-cheese best friends Dolly and Jean - the one a snobbish prude whose worldview is lifted wholesale from the Daily Mail, the other waspish, cynical and sexually frustrated ("It's taken me 50 years to find my erogenous zones; I'm not going back and settling for a bag of wine gums").

For all their bickering, these six form a close-knit group, bound together by mutual respect. Select visitors are tolerated - notably father-fixated handyman Stan, befuddled by women but boyishly bewitched by technology ("You may find retractable bollards humorous, but to my mind they've revolutionised flexible parking"), and (more guardedly) the cheerfully inept Human Resources representative Phillipa. But unwelcome interlopers (a tyrannical temporary manager, a flatulent would-be faith healer and, especially, Bren's selfish train-wreck of a mother, Petula, a namedropping fantasist who's seen far better days) meet the full force of their disdain.

Sitcoms thrive on confinement, but dinnerladies outdoes even the prison walls of Porridge (BBC, 1974-76), standing as perhaps Britain's most austere sitcom. The camera never leaves the cocoon of the canteen set, so that offscreen spaces (the fire escape where Tony takes refuge with a cigarette, Petula's caravan, even the back of the toaster) develop the exotic attraction of the forbidden.

Wood's scenarios carry real emotional depth - Bren's cripplingly low self-esteem, Tony's cancer and the pair's poignantly tentative romance, not to mention Jean's broken marriage and Anita's abandoned baby - and there is a wider political and social agenda too, championing ordinary workers at the mercy of aloof, indifferent managers, or daring to suggest that the over-fifties might still enjoy sex. But dinnerladies sugars these pills with a phenomenal joke-rate, sparky dialogue and satisfyingly coarse humour - who would have thought that Victoria Wood could take such delight in fart gags?

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. Work experience (2:05)
2. Conceiving a Millennium baby (1:18)
3. Ladders (2:46)
4. Glen's predicament (1:56)
Complete episode: 'Catering' (26:48)
Rag Trade, The (1961-63)
Victoria Wood - As Seen on TV (1985-86)
Imrie, Celia (1952-)
Walters, Julie (1950-)
Wood, Victoria (1953-)
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