Stylist columnist Lucy Mangan celebrates the late comedy genius
“My boyfriend had a sex manual but he was dyslexic. I was lying in bed and he was looking for my vinegar.”
Victoria Wood, the creator of this and thousands of other endlessly quotable lines – in songs, in sitcoms, in her stand-up and sketches, dramas and just about any other form of entertainment she chose to turn her hand to over the last 30 years – died a week ago at the age of 62, after a short battle with cancer.
I still can’t believe it. I worshipped her from the first moment I saw Victoria Wood As Seen On TV, when I was about 10. She was the funniest thing I had ever seen. I laughed till I cried.
I knew already her characters, I knew their humour, the rhythms of their speech in my very bones because my family was northern, but I had never seen them on screen before. Just as I’d never seen a woman be funny on screen before, not on her own terms, not on her own show, not with words she had written herself. It was about 18 different kinds of revelatory to me and to countless others.
Over the next 20 years, I watched – and re-watched – everything she did, laughing as hard as ever but also increasingly appreciating what a master of her craft she was. Her work is unobtrusive perfection. Not a missed beat, not an extraneous syllable, not a misplaced word. Everyone responds to it and there isn’t a writer I know who doesn’t try to hew to her template.
She made everything seem possible. Her 40-year career began with every disadvantage. Not only northern but “fat and a girl – a double whammy,” she said, remembering trying to get work in her 20s. She took ordinary, female (and fat – “My magazine said, ‘Play down a large bosom with clever use of jewellery at the neck.’ So I had this chiffon scarf with m’ bronze lifesaving medal attached to it”) life as her point of departure because she knew that it – and she, and all of us – were worthy of being represented and because she knew anything was funny if you saw it accurately enough and mined it deeply enough.
In one of her live shows I saw she had a whole routine around the panic vortex you drop into when you momentarily can’t find your handbag. There was a wordless joke that brought the house down when she simply lifted her leg, with a puzzled expression on her face as she recreated reading tampon instructions for the first time. She brought a million tiny, private moments of absolutely ordinary, absolutely female life out into the light and said they were as worthy of discussion, inspection, comic use and laughter as anything else. There is no greater gift than to make people laugh, except perhaps to make them heard. Wood – uniquely – did both, for ordinary women, always.
I think what inspires me most now is the fact that although she was shy and private, she had absolute faith in herself and her work. She plotted her own course without seeking approval from anyone and grew in confidence and courage as her career went on. Easier if you’re as brilliant as she was, perhaps, but still a light to guide us all. Thank you for everything. But especially, of course, for the laffs.
Photography: Ellis Parrinder, Getty