No one in American culture enjoys the status that comedian Victoria Wood, who died today at 62, had in Britain. To find an equivalent, you have to combine Richard Pryor, Allan Sherman, and Joan Rivers—at least when it comes to the role she played in British society.
Having grown up working class in Manchester, Wood was all too aware of the condescension Southerners so often displayed for their compatriots up North, but rather than denounce the North-South divide, she turned it into comedy so charming even Londoners couldn’t help but laugh. Take her sketch “Girls Talking,” from her 1982 series with co-star Julia Walters, Wood and Walters, in which two working-class teenagers answer the posh off-camera interviewer’s ridiculous questions with a deadpan effect so convincing it could have passed for a scene from that week’s Panorama.
Interviewer: Don’t you and your, er, mates drink?
Jeanette: We used to drink battery acid.
Marie: But it burns holes in your tights
Interviewer: Do you sniff glue?
Jeanette: That’s for snobs really, isn’t it?
Marie: Grammar school kids sniff glue.
Jeanette: We sniff burning lino.
Marie: Cot blankets.
Jeanette: Estee Lauder Youth Dew.
Interviewer: What effect does it have?
Marie: Fall over mainly.
Although her work was never mean, Wood didn’t pull punches when it came to chronicling Britain’s class divide. “Just an Ordinary School” from her 1984–86 BBC series As Seen on TV, satirizes the kind of oblivious private school girls Americans probably know best from the early entries in the “Up” series of films.
Babs: You don’t have to have all the extras.
Anthea: Scuba diving—quite a lot of the girls don’t do that now, do they?
Ceal: Or ballooning. Hot-air ballooning. There’s only about 10 girls here with their own balloons now.
Wood’s work always focused on ordinary people—in “At the Dentist,” from 1981, Wood plays a patient who encounters the world’s most unprofessional dental assistant: “We had a woman come in last week—he took out every tooth in her head. She’d only come in for a scale and polish. Died laughing!”
Her ability to convey sharp, caustic characters in very short scenes is on display in this café sketch, in which Julie Walters plays the kind of dreadful woman we prefer to watch on television rather than experience in real life.
After the success of Wood and Walters (the start of her longtime collaboration with Walters, best known these days for her role as Molly Weasley in the Harry Potter movies) and As Seen on TV, Wood moved away from sketch comedy—though she still did TV specials—and focused more on stand-up, sitcoms, and the occasional straight play written for television. She even turned her beloved soap-opera spoof Acorn Antiques into a West End musical.
Given her immense popularity in Britain—the Guardian is live-blogging tributes from Britons eminent and otherwise—it may seem strange that Wood’s fame never spread to this side of the Atlantic. For all its brilliance, her humor was very specific. Specific not just to Britain, but to Northern England and the particular backward-looking era in which she was born. Take that last café sketch: It was filmed in 1980 or ’81, but it featured references to Spam, an old-fashioned hairdresser, 1950s singer Alma Cogan, French cabaret singer Maurice Chevalier, and the actress Phyllis Calvert, whose career took off in the 1940s. Wood wrote monologues—a comedic style that hearkened back to the era of the music hall and was all but dead by the middle of the 20th century—and made fun of TV commercials, very British documentaries, the English class system, and the peculiar way Northern English people communicate with one another.
Earlier, I likened Wood to Allan Sherman—the Weird Al Yankovic of the 1960s—but Wood wasn’t exactly a song parodist. She first came to fame by winning a TV talent show for her comedic songs, and her second gig was writing funny topical songs for the weekly consumer show That’s Life. Many of her songs are just as inscrutably British as her sketches and stand-up, and more than one satirize the stereotypes associated with the North. (“Pretend to be Northern/ Just smile and act dense/ Just sing something Northern/ It doesn’t have to make sense/ Make a list of Northern clichés and you can’t go wrong/ Put in any order, and you’ve got a Northern song: You just go ‘Tripe, clogs, going to the dogs, Wigan, and Blackpool tram/ Brass bands, butties in your ’and, whippets and next door’s mam/ Cloth cap, hanky full of snap, shawls and scabby knees/ Hot pot, seven to a cot, head scarves, and mushy peas.’ ”) Others, though, deserve to be heard—and enjoyed—by everyone.
Take for instance her lovely song “Fourteen Again” a nostalgic look back at a time “when I was funny, I was famous, I was never ignored. I was a crazy girl, I had a laugh. I had Ilya Kuryakin’s autograph, I had no idea you could wake up feeling bored.” And if I ever need to cry at will, all I need to do is think of her song “Like Any Old Day,” which tells the story of an old man coming home from the hospital after his wife of many decades has died. I’m listening to it now, thinking of Victoria Wood.