Victoria Wood died on 20th April, aged only 62. Chris Pearson remembers his hero - a comedy genius who stood out due to her sincerity and warmth.
It sounds callous, but I've never quite understood the hysteria around celebrity deaths. Of course, it's sad when someone whose work you have enjoyed and admired passes away, especially when that person's death feels premature. But the sense of personal loss - the genuine heartache of people laying tributes to David Bowie in Brixton, or crowding outside the gates of Neverland Ranch after the death of Michael Jackson - has always eluded me. Sure, it's a shame that you'll never hear that next album or see the great performance that they might yet have given, and of course it's natural to feel sympathy for their family and loved ones. But you didn't know them. They didn't know you. Such outpourings of grief have always, to me, seemed misplaced.
But last Wednesday, I got it. The feeling that an artist's work has been so familiar for so long, that they have influenced your personality in such a fundamental sense, that they cease to seem like a distant public figure and come to feel like something else entirely. When I read that Victoria Wood had passed away, I understood.
One newspaper obituary mentioned the near-impossibility of paying tribute to Victoria Wood without quoting her own words. You feel when writing about her that, anything you say, she could have said so much better. As a writer, her command of the English language was second to none. Her writing was never verbose, never pretentious, but every word was perfectly selected for maximum comedic effect. Out of everyday language, she fashioned dialogue, sketches and stand-up comedy which could stand comparison with any 'serious' playwright of her generation.
It's hard to point to just one Victoria Wood creation and identify it as her masterpiece; her output was too brilliant and too varied. But, for anyone who isn't familiar with her work, the sketches from As Seen On TV are the perfect place to begin. More like miniature playlets than conventional comedy sketches, the characters are expertly crafted, the gag rate is sky-high, and the performances (from a cast including Wood, Julie Walters, Patricia Routledge and Celia Imrie) are note-perfect. As children, my sister and I listened to them on cassette tape, time and time again, until we could recite entire scenes and monologues from memory. Half of the jokes went completely over our heads, and yet we still found them hysterical; the words are somehow funny even when you don't understand them. Those sketches are now 30 years old, and yet they have totally stood the test of time. The cultural references might be to the 1980s, but the characters and attitudes which they depict remain totally relevant and recognisable in 2016.
This is true across the board. Her stand-up still feels fresh and current - not least because she has been such a clear influence on many younger comedians - and remains the true gold standard towards which modern observational and confessional comedy aspires. Her 1990s sitcom dinnerladies is a perfect ensemble piece, full of warmth and humour, with a wonderful sentiment and pathos among the laughs. And with a current resurgence in traditional sitcoms filmed in front of a live studio audience, the show's unflashy style is back in vogue. It wouldn't look out of place in the schedules today, and it would still knock spots off the competition.
Indeed, it is the warmth and compassion of Victoria Wood's writing which makes it such a joy. Of course there is an important place for comedy which is scaborous, savage and satirical, but this too often leads to the undervaluing of comedy which is kind and optimistic, comedy which brings people together in laughter. Her sketches poke fun, and they send up recognisable social types, but this is done with such grace and self-deprecation that it never feels cruel or unkind; we are invited to laugh at universal human foibles, and to see them in ourselves. The mockery is gentle and inclusive. It leaves you feeling happy.
A comedy career spanning four decades leaves us spoilt for choice in terms of wonderfully witty quotations, but the one which has been quoted most often since last Wednesday is this:
"Life's not fair, is it? Some of us drink champagne in the fast lane, and some of us eat our sandwiches by the loose chippings on the A597."
It's telling that she doesn't make clear which camp she falls into herself, but it's hard to resist the feeling that she had one foot in each. One of the most successful and well-loved comedians of all time, but one whose extraordinary qualities were so grounded in the ordinary and the everyday, Victoria Wood was truly one of a kind.
Author: Chris Pearson