Anyone who has watched her in Dinnerladies or receiving a standing ovation at the Royal Albert Hall might doubt it, but Victoria Wood was quite shy. “One of her defences against being shy was to be funny,” says theatre colleague Peter James. “She always felt safe when performing.”
That’s fortunate: her path to stardom was an on-stage slog, facing tough audiences at university auditions, folk clubs and noisy pubs. “She didn’t always get a great response,” says Robert Howie, a friend of Wood’s at Birmingham University. “Yet she had this inner conviction that one day people would get it.”
Five years after her death, Wood remains one of Britain’s most lauded comedians. Her sketches are frequently cited by the likes of Rachel Parris, Katy Brand, Ellie Taylor and Rhod Gilbert. She always dreamed of fame, says Jasper Rees, author of her biography Let’s Do It. Aged eight, Wood saw Joyce Grenfell’s one-woman show in Buxton: “I didn’t know you could be on stage just all by yourself,” she said. “That was what set me off.”
When Wood was 15, her sister persuaded her to attend Rochdale Youth Theatre Workshop and she learned about lighting, costume, speech and script from industry experts. In 1969, James gave the teenagers a directing course and extended an open invitation to Liverpool’s Everyman theatre, which he co-founded. He met Wood when she showed up asking for a tour: “She was shy, but very direct.”
Wood began writing. Rees found her earliest script in a school exercise book: “A lot of it is quite crude. It’s a 16-year-old’s spritely knock-off of a Joe Orton play. But it is really funny.”
While this wasn’t performed, she did stage a musical, a pantomime and a short play at school. An adept pianist, Wood composed original songs. The musical had a fictional sponsor, Cupid’s Kiss Cornplasters, with advertisements sung on stage: “With Cupid’s Kiss Cornplaster / You’ll have feet of alabaster / Be a missus, not a miss / With a Cupid’s Kiss.”
The workshop emboldened her to apply for drama courses and she got into Birmingham. Students had “impromptu cabaret evenings” in the department’s theatre, says Howie, where Wood played self-penned songs.
Many Wednesday afternoons, he and Wood would watch matinees. One featured the actor and singer John Hanson in “bright orange makeup and a terrible jet-black toupee. We were in stitches.” Hanson was later referenced in Acorn Antiques.
University wasn’t easy for Wood, though. She was “treated appallingly”, Howie says, something that filtered into her sketches and plays. When the department staged Orton’s Loot in 1973, she’d hoped for the only female role, but was overlooked. Asked to play hymns, she rebelled, playing her own songs – including Going Home Again, about “middle-class students pretending to have proletarian roots”, Rees says. (“Put back your accent where you found it / And climb into the train / You’ve got to pass / As middle class / You’re going home again.”)
“The music is very sweet and cute, but the song is pure acid,” Rees says. “It’s in embryo what Victoria would do throughout her career.”
Her show-stealing songs started a chain reaction, leading to radio and TV appearances including on New Faces. She was also singing in local pubs and folk clubs – including supporting Jasper Carrott. Pub chatter often drowned out her funny lyrics. “She hadn’t found a way of coming out of her shell on stage yet,” Rees says.
TV appearances hadn’t brought the big break she’d hoped for. “It was a long time of struggling with no money,” Howie says.
In 1978, Wood’s salvation came in unassuming form: a topical sketch show called In at the Death, staged at the Bush theatre in London. In rehearsals, she had a flashback to Manchester Polytechnic, where a hilarious student had given Wood a tour as she clutched a sick bucket (audition nerves). The student was Julie Walters – now, here she was again! They clicked and formed an alliance against the show’s men.
Wood was hired as a songwriter, but when one man failed to submit a sketch, she grabbed the chance and wrote one called Sex. Set in a library, Walters played a naive woman who, post a one-night stand, thinks she might be pregnant. Another character asks Walters: “Where are you in the menstrual cycle?” She replies: “Taurus.”
“She wrote this gag that was explosively funny – proved every night when the Bush theatre detonated,” says Rees. It gave her comedy confidence and marked the start of a fruitful partnership with Walters.
David Leland, then associate director of the Crucible theatre in Sheffield, heard about Wood from one of the show’s writers. The Crucible was making enough money hosting snooker to commission new plays. Leland asked Wood for a script idea, on the condition she act and play piano in it. “Later that evening, I heard the letterbox go,” says Leland. “There was a brown envelope, written on the back was the plot of Talent.”
It followed Maureen and Julie, two friends experiencing the seediness of a talent competition. She wrote Julie for Walters. Although Wood was new to this, Leland thought the script was “terrific”. James, by then the Crucible’s artistic director, agreed: “She clearly knew what she was doing comically.”
Audiences loved it too. “When we transferred to the ICA, it was a deadly winter, but people were queueing in sub-zero temperatures for returns,” says Leland. The play returns to the Crucible this month, in a revival directed by Paul Foster.
Wood began working on another play for the Crucible, which became Good Fun (1980), about a community arts centre. It drew on personalities from university. Simultaneously, her standup was blossoming. She and then-husband Geoffrey Durham worked on a persona – the patter she’d struggled with between the effortless songs. Durham told Rees they plotted to make her “the first female standup comic”.
Rees says Wood’s grounding in theatre shaped her varied career: “She grew up steeped in the knowledge of what it was to be in an audience. But what she learned on stage in theatres was how each audience needs to be read, understood, worked and played. I don’t think any standup understood that better, and she took that knowledge with her into the TV studio.”
Talent is at the Crucible, Sheffield, 30 June-24 July. Let’s Do It: The Authorised Biography of Victoria Wood by Jasper Rees is published by Orion Books.