Goodbye To The North’s Greatest Comic Talent
She and I were born in the same year, and I first met her in a fringe show she performed in London called ‘Talent’. In it, two girls wait backstage to appear in a talent show. Maureen is fat, Julie is thin and hypertense. Two magicians practice a trick on them, and manage to burn Maureen’s arm. Julie finds out that her music arranger will be the man who vanished after leaving her pregnant seven years earlier. The show is rigged so that the creepy organiser’s wife will win. At the last moment the girls chuck it in and do a runner. ‘Talent’ won a Best Newcomer award in 1978, and was of course written by Victoria Wood for her frequent stage-partner Julie Waters.
A sequel picked up after Julie’s boyfriend dies in a car crash with another girl. Maureen has hit target weight at her class, and has vowed to lose her virginity tonight. Julie hasn’t left her house for three months, but agrees to go to a club with her.
Maureen: Do you want to wash your hair or anything?
Julie: Well I could do, or I could go to a fancy dress party as a spaniel that drowned in a chip pan.
Maureen: No bad language now.
Julie: You what?
Maureen: That’s what we say at the club if anyone says ‘chip pan’.
Julie: Bloody stupid.
Although her plays were darkly comic slices of Northern life, they famously broke the fourth wall to feature witty, acerbic songs. Both were TV plays for Granada, and were followed by another, ‘Happy Since I Met You’, about a failing relationship. All are on DVD.
Victoria married a magician in real life, the Great Soprendo (real name Geoffrey Durham). She wrote a hilarious play called ‘Good Fun’, about an evening’s entertainment (including novelty hedge trimming) for cystitis sufferers. There were many sketch shows, and other plays, including ‘That Day We Sang’, ‘Pat and Margaret’ and ‘Housewife, 49’, about Britain’s Mass Observation Society. A very funny hit TV series, ‘Dinnerladies’, did what she always did; it gave voice to a swathe of actresses, all gifted comediennes, who weren’t getting good parts. I remember an exchange between two of the mature ladies preparing sandwiches;
‘I watched a programme last night about a man who got killed in an avalanche. Two years later his wife found his frozen sperm in her freezer and got pregnant with a turkey baster. She’d been waiting for years to have children.’
‘She should have cleaned her freezer out more often, then.’
Victoria’s live shows sold out. We wrote to each other for a number of years. She wasn’t a good actress, but she got better (she could never resist looking into the camera) but her real strength was in her bleakly comic writing. She followed in the footsteps of other great Northern writers like Alan Bennett, Keith Waterhouse, Peter Tinniswood and David Nobbs. Her phrasing verged on the poetic and she spawned different sets of catchphrases in different households. Ours included ‘I tapped her on the cleavage with a pastry fork’, and ‘Let me through, I’m a diabetic’.
Despite her darker writing and the kind of plays nobody would put on TV now, she became most famous for a running sketch which parodied bad shot-on-tape soap operas, ‘Acorn Antiques’. The sketch became an unlikely big budget musical. While I was working with Julie Waters, and Celia Imrie I got Celia to leave a voice message on a friend’s phone in the character of Babs. (You have to imagine her voice for this) ‘Hello? Is that Mr Andrew Hunt? That Gainsborough’s Blue Boy you ordered in a mauve, it’s in now.’
There was simply no-one remotely like her. The song ‘Let’s Do It’ is funny and popular but there were many better songs. At best she was as close to a British Stephen Sondheim we ever got. No-one can take her place. Here she is accepting her BAFTA award.