Date of Birth: 19 May 1953, Prestwich, Lancashire, UK
Birth Name: Victoria Wood
Victoria Wood, found success in the 1970s as one of Britain’s first woman stand-up comics and the plump chanteuse of bittersweet songs, often with a social point.
At the heart of her acerbic observations on human frailty lay her mischievous brand of witty musical epigrams that conjured a lost 1950s world of feeble men, gynaecological afflictions, split ends, corner shops and unsatisfactory sex.
In the days when almost all stand-up comedians were men spouting sexist, racist material, Victoria Wood counted herself fortunate that she narrowly predated the wave of alternative comedians. Indeed, seated breezily at the piano, she seemed to frame her essentially Northern, self-deprecating view of life in the old-fashioned cabaret style of Noël Coward.
It was perhaps in subconscious homage to Coward (who had fashioned his own version of the Cole Porter standard in the 1950s) that she wrote her most popular number Let’s Do It, putting her own twist on it by making it a marathon saga of inverted suburban lust with the wife, Freda, wanting sex and the husband, Barry, finding every excuse not to oblige.
As Freda’s demands are given full rein (“Bend me over backwards on my Hostess trolley… Beat me on the bottom with my Woman’s Weekly”), Barry’s excuses become more and more lame (“You know I pulled a muscle when I did that grouting… ”)
Having surfaced on the ITV talent show New Faces in 1974, Victoria Wood soon became a fixture on Esther Rantzen’s BBC One That’s Life show, warbling whimsical takes on stories in the news.
Although Victoria Wood herself cultivated a deliberately frumpy, roly-poly image, attracting such epithets as The Daily Telegraph’s “plucky, buxom singing blonde from Lancashire”, her origins were comfortably middle-class: her father was an insurance underwriter who played jazz piano and wrote plays and television scripts in his spare time. Her flair was to capture the speech-patterns of ordinary folk discussing subjects that were workaday but inherently amusing. As one television producer put it, “she manages to be extraordinarily ordinary”.
While her on-stage persona suggested the matey, if mumsy, girl-next-door, she earned a reputation for being somewhat dour in private. She disliked publicity, was wary of journalists and gave interviews only when they served to promote her work. There were hints of a troubled childhood, and in the 1990s she underwent psychotherapy “to clear out things that might have been bothering me from my past”, although these were never specified.
Her appearance, too, was ambiguous: the baggy striped blazer, trousers, carelessly knotted tie and pudding-basin haircut underlined a camp style that attracted a large gay following. Later, when Victoria Wood lost weight, she shed the boyish uniform for more stylish jackets and brooches. At the same time, she moved from one-liners to longer formats.
Her first substantial success on television was with her series Wood and Walters (1982), starring with her close friend from drama school days, Julie Walters. In Victoria Wood – as Seen on TV (1985), she created a cult classic with “Acorn Antiques”, a soap opera parody in which the cast, featuring Wood and Walters, fluffed their lines on the wobbly set, a throwback to the days of Crossroads. Victoria Wood’s scripts were clever, quirky and original, and the show won Bafta’s prize for best comedy of the year, cementing her claim to be the funniest woman in Britain.
After a gap of several years, in 1998 she returned to the small screen with a new sitcom, Dinnerladies, about a group of women working in a northern factory canteen.
Untrammelled by political correctness, Victoria Wood’s scripts fizzed with sexual banter between the women and the canteen manager, Tony (Andrew Dunn). “Abuse and harassment are disgusting,” she conceded, “but when people go to work they talk about sex - it’s part of life.” The series was recommissioned the following year, but received mixed reviews and was subsequently dropped.
She turned again to the live stage, touring provincial venues and starring at the London Palladium and at the Royal Albert Hall, where with her stand-up show, Victoria Wood — At It Again, she held the record for the most sell-out shows for a solo performer.
Victoria Wood was born on May 19 1953 at Prestwich, north Manchester, the youngest of four children. Her father worked in insurance, underwriting cover for pharmaceutical chemists, and as the Liberal agent for Bury and Radcliffe, where he and his wife brought up the family.
When Victoria was five, they moved to Birtle Edge House, a dismal, isolated former children’s home overlooking moorland on the outskirts of Bury.
A year later Victoria saw the comedienne Joyce Grenfell on stage in Buxton, and decided she wanted to be an entertainer.
At Bury Grammar School for Girls she was talented but withdrawn and lazy, and in her spare time joined the local orchestra and played trumpet in a military band.
Tortured by low self-esteem, she also read voraciously, second-hand books that had either been acquired by her book-obsessed mother, a drama teacher and former communist, or stolen from Bury Library (in 1999, by then an established star, Victoria Wood sent the library £100 in cash and a letter of apology).
For her 15th birthday in 1968 her father gave her a piano, and in the same year she joined Rochdale Youth Theatre Workshop, where she impressed with her writing skills and comic invention. Called for an audition at Manchester Polytechnic’s school of theatre in 1970, she failed to secure a place but encountered Julie Walters for the first time.
In 1971 she enrolled at Birmingham University to study Drama and Theatre Arts and while working as a part-time barmaid in a pub frequented by BBC producers was invited to a party where she played a few of her songs. The following day she auditioned at the BBC studio, Pebble Mill, and was given a spot on a local television programme about Midlands life. This led to another audition, and two appearances on the ITV talent show New Faces, one of which she won.
But a major breakthrough still eluded her, and she spent four years on the dole, often depressed, staying in bed for 14 hours at a stretch, eating too much tinned mince but also writing stage sketches, some of which became vehicles for her satirical songs.
In 1978 her first stage hit, In at the Death (Bush), was a revue about mortality. The Daily Telegraph found the songs “successfully blend a gallows humour with an unexpected touch of humanity”.
She followed up with Talent (ICA, 1979), a largely autobiographical take on a dreadful talent show in which she deployed jokes about such preoccupations as corsetry and “barmy” nuns.
While The Daily Telegraph considered this “crude and chattermagging”, The Sunday Telegraph’s critic disagreed, saying Victoria Wood’s talent was “as ample as her frame”.
For years she had agonised about her weight, having envied her two older sisters who were thin and, to her mind, more attractive. As a young woman of 15 stone, she suffered from a compulsive eating disorder, which she overcame and later incorporated into her stage act.
She became a vegetarian, gave up smoking, drinking and sugar, but subsequently admitted to secret bingeing sessions, isolating herself socially in the process.
“If you have an eating disorder then food replaces almost any need that you have,” she explained. “But you have to do it privately. Personally I don’t like being fat. The fact is that I was overweight, but I’m not now.” She trimmed down to a size 14.
After undergoing a hysterectomy in 2001, she took up marathon running and in 2004 made a hard-hitting documentary for BBC Television excoriating the diet industry. The following year a musical version of Acorn Antiques, starring Julie Walters and directed by Trevor Nunn, opened at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.
She was irked when her 2009 television special, Victoria Wood’s Midlife Christmas, was moved (without reference to her) from the promised prime time Christmas Day slot to an inferior one the night before.
In 2011 she wrote and directed a musical, That Day We Sang, for the Manchester International Festival, about a middle-aged couple who find love after meeting on a television programme about a choir they both sang in 40 years previously.
The following year she wrote Loving Miss Hatto (BBC1), an “imagining” of the life of the concert pianist Joyce Hatto, who became famous late in life when unauthorised copies of recordings made by other pianists were released under her name, a fraud which only came to light after her death.
The following year she produced a documentary about the history of tea entitled Victoria Wood’s Nice Cup of Tea.
In the last three years she appeared in episodes of QI and I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, and in 2015 took part in a celebrity version of The Great British Bake Off for Comic Relief, when she was crowned Star Baker in her episode. In December last year she co-starred with Timothy Spall in Sky television’s 3-part adaptation of Fungus the Bogeyman.
Her television work earned her many British Comedy and Bafta awards, including, in 2005, a tribute award and, in 2007, Bafta’s award for best actress and best single drama for Housewife, 49. She was the Variety Club’s BBC Personality of the Year for 1987.
She was appointed OBE in 1997 and advanced to CBE in 2008. She once beat the Queen Mother into second place to top a poll of “People You’d Most Like to Live Next Door To”.
Victoria Wood married, in 1980, Geoffrey Durham, the magician who entertained under the name The Great Soprendo. The marriage was dissolved more than 20 years later.