Let's Do It: The Authorised Biography of Victoria Wood by Jasper Rees – review

This profile of the astute observer of domesticity is warm-hearted and full of detail

Victoria Wood was told in 1974 by a talent show judge that she would never be a success. Yet she went on to enjoy a 40-year career as a comedian, writer, producer, actor and documentary maker. An astute observer of British domestic life and the perfect skewerer of class, Wood all but invented the one-woman show. You can understand, then, why this authorised biography by journalist and friend Jasper Rees is nearly 600 pages long.

Wood, who had two sisters and a much older brother, grew up in an isolated house in Bury with no running water. Her “proudly humourless” mother would collect snags of wool caught on railings to make jumpers, while her father, an occasional scriptwriter for Coronation Street, bought Wood her first piano.

Shy, lazy and bright at school, she went on to study drama at Birmingham University, “but I feel better now”. There, she wore NHS specs while her eating disorder worsened, the beginning of a lifelong struggle with her weight. Not long after, in the early 70s, she met Julie Walters, who was to become her near-constant collaborator. “I remember thinking the heavens had sent her to me,” Walters tells Rees.

In 1980, Wood married magician Geoffrey Durham. Their marital dynamic was a showbiz reverse of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s setup: Durham typed up Wood’s scripts around playing small gigs. Wood appeared in an Edinburgh revue with her friend Roger McGough, though it was a two-hander with Durham in a theatre above a pub that got Wood noticed. Her first play, Talent, followed shortly after and was adapted for television.

Rees, who is clearly very fond of his subject, takes us through Wood’s impressive career. There was the genius of Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV, in which she bounced off a piano stool as though it were a space hopper, singing: “I’m on fire with desire/ I could handle half the tenors in a male voice choir.” I watched it, years later, as a teen and didn’t understand how she could keep breathing throughout. Clearly she had the lungs of a free diver, while her one-liners became two-, three-, four-liners. I was hooked.

Anne Reid, Victoria Wood and Julie Walters in the BBC sitcom Dinnerladies.
Anne Reid, Victoria Wood and Julie Walters in the BBC sitcom Dinnerladies. Photograph: Alamy

Then came Pat and Margaret, Dinnerladies, Housewife, 49, the Christmas specials, the seemingly endless tours (including a sold-out run at the Royal Albert Hall). The four Baftas.

Such triumphs allowed Wood to lunch at Claridge’s and live in a huge north London home. It wasn’t the trappings of fame that she enjoyed, though (at one point she attends a party thrown by Snoop Doog), but the clout she acquired within the industry.

Rees is so thorough on the workings of Wood’s productions that it’s as though he is prowling the stage floor as he writes. He describes, for instance, how the sound guy had to hold back his instinct to move the boom out of shot during Acorn Antiques, Wood’s wonderful parody of shoddy daytime soaps. A perfectionist, she was whip-strict when it came to her scripts and music (“If you’ve written an F sharp, you don’t want people to play an E flat”), and surrounded herself with her favourite people: Walters, Celia Imrie, Duncan Preston and producer and director Geoff Posner.

As with all interesting people, Wood was complex. She could be scathing (Imrie tells Rees that Wood once made her “feel like shit”), yet she did pro bono gigs and left £4m to charity in her will. She was also thanked by many women’s charities for weaving her experience of a hysterectomy into her set.

When the cancer that would eventually kill her returned, she lost neither her sense of humour nor her honesty. “I’m running out of patience with the whole thing,” she wrote. She kept her diagnosis from all but her closest friends. Her one unfulfilled career goal was to make a feature film.

In an early television appearance, Wood is introduced, twice, as “Joanna Wood”. Around the same time, she writes to her sister, Rosalind: “I think I’m wonderful… I suppose I’ll have to wait a while until everyone thinks so.” She died in 2016, but everyone agreed with her long before.

Let’s Do It: The Authorised Biography of Victoria Wood by Jasper Rees is published by Trapeze (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


Hannah Jane Parkinson

The GuardianTramp

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