Why Victoria Wood Is The Funniest British Comedian You've Never Heard Of

by Lydia Perović

Here’s the problem: this side of the Atlantic is unaware of Victoria Wood. Queen of observational stand-up, master of the cheerful monologue ridden with a thousand little dreads, goddess of the sketch surreal and regular, authoress of so much women-centered content that she out-Bechdels the Bechdel Test by a mile, unsentimental teller of truth in matters sexual, superb chronicler of Englishness, trail-blazer (she’d hate this title, but I don’t give a damn), tea drinker, owner of the most glorious bosom in the whole of Commonwealth.

Yet Britain’s much loved, awarded and televised, the Royal Albert Hall-selling-out, multi-talented comedic performer and writer could easily visit any North American city in total anonymity, answer the career questions in parties with “I’m in television” and notice that only perhaps her English accent sounding distinctly un-Oxbridge might attract some faint attention from people around her.

At least here in Canada, due to the vestiges of the British connection (which, truth be told, today only go as far as the CBC’s curious obsession with Will and Kate) one would expect the situation to be better. There’s also a minor tradition of an older generation of peculiar Canadian women doing something very akin to stand-up — Libby Morris and the Wagner-lampooning Anna Russell, for example. But none of that is of any help. Victoria Wood’s DVDs are unavailable for the whole of Region Code 1, and she has never performed live on either side of the 49th parallel. The PBS, Showcase, Vision TV, W Network, the channels open to British content, remained impervious over the years. Neither her Netflix or IMDB pages have a portrait picture.

So I’ve been thinking. And concluded that all of the things that people might cite as obstacles to Wood’s North American appeal are, in fact, the advantages.

Her language requires an audience’s full attention and audiences can’t be expected to work for their laughs.

Well. Her writing does require that you stay tuned in. The delivery of North American mainstream comedians is usually slower and packed with leisurely pauses — Chris Rock, Wanda Sykes and Robin Williams are exceptions to the general tenor. (We’ll see if the current stateside popularity of Armando Ianucci has any long-term effects on the TV comedy pace.) Wood in stand-up and much of her other work delivers at fast speed, and lines that are chock-full of content and references ranging from discontinued British brands to literature, with puns, alliterations and rhymes around every other corner. A non-Brit is bound to find herself missing out on one or two, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t know who, say, Ann Widdecombe is. Drop one occasionally, and keep up. Besides, the musicality of her language will be accessible to everybody.

From the Madeline monologue in Live in Your Own Home (1994): “… she said to me, what are you planning on doing, our Madeline. And I said modelling, and she said modelling Madeline. And I said yeah, and she said ooh Madeline you’d be very middling at modelling. I said would I. She said yes if you go muddling with modelling you’ll be middling our Madeline. I said you’re meddling.”

Some pieces of dialogue form “dinnerladies,” Wood’s sitcom that ran from 1998 to 2000:

“Don’t you think he’s knicker-wetting, groin-grindingly fab?”

“What were they called… them things like cucumbers… Suffragettes.”

“At least he’s not that other thing. It’s quite a little bouncy sort of a word. Dum-tee-dum.”
“Trampoline?… Marzipan?… Confident?”
“Impotent. At least he’s not impotent.”

Then there’s that accent.

Yeah. It’s Greater Manchester. Either because Brits prefer exporting Southern and Oxbridge cultural products, or because Americans and Canadians only want to buy those, we don’t get to listen to Northern English accents very often. Some of Wood’s characters will have stronger northern accents, and some will speak in Southern affectation, and these shades are used for various effects. Her playlet “Over To Pam” is a great example.

But… but… a lot of her stuff is about class. We don’t do that as much over here.

And that is our problem. While there are few subjects as important, comedy over here doesn’t know how to talk about class. In the U.S., the rich and famous have a hold over the popular (and media) imagination; and in Canada, everybody sees themselves either by self-definition or aspiration as middle-class. Comedy about aspiration, upward mobility, status anxieties, status ostentation, greed and awfulness of becoming — of wanting to become — middle class and wealthy is just about non existent. Both our societies accept moving up the ladder, staying there and making sure our children continue that way as a fine thing to do, nothing to make fun of or to question. We’re aware of our consumption patterns, but aren’t willing to change them much. We spend all our lives at work, but few of our cultural creations take place at work or make an effort to say something about work. (We did have “Roseanne,” point taken, and a handful of other successful sitcoms have been workplace sitcoms, but “Murphy Brown,” “Anything But Love,” “Designing Women” weren’t exactly straining to be realistic about work the way, say, the British “Office” is. “Parks and Recreation” fares better.)

With Wood, the opposite is the case. Most of her characters are off centre and alienated. There is no denial of the world of work — moreover, there’s interest in the low-prestige jobs, the lumpen and the unsuccessful. Her characters are cleaning ladies, people in fast food establishments and factory canteens, fostered youth, would-be artists who don’t get grants or lose talent competitions, people who fail at job or university interviews, housewives. If they’re successful, they believe their own press, and comedy ensues.

In Wood’s other materials, the middle class is — you’re never quite sure, such is her method — either thoroughly abhorred or accepted as lingua franca through the playing with its many signifiers (brand names, choice in furniture, clothes and shoes, holiday destinations, party conversations, popular TV personalities). It’s the type of comedic embrace-slash-critique that would work really well this side of the pond, given our mad consumerism, if we were only able to grow the indigenous equivalent. Sarah Silverman’s stand-up has some good moments of that sort, but the only thing I can think of that comes really close is “Portlandia,” which is conversant in the North American lefty hipster (fundamentally middle class) cultures as much as Wood is in the English suburbiton. The brunch queue episode, in which the leather-clad vigilante played by Tim Robbins tries to punish Carrie Brownstein’s Nancy for queue-jumping by feeding her non-organic, additive- and food-coloring-filled cheap supermarket breakfast bar (“Eat your brunch, Nance!”) must be one of the most Woodesque scenes to be penned by somebody other than Wood.

There are all these women in her comedies. Women, women, women. Many of them even middle aged and older.

I know, isn’t it wonderful? Few people in any discipline would dare say publicly that they “find men mystifying” and don’t write male characters easily, but Victoria Wood did. (Which reminded me that Margaret Drabble also dared say something similar in an interview.) Doesn’t that mean you’re bound to delve in the unimportant, the disempowered and the small? I’m fine with that, would likely be Wood’s rejoinder as she continues to create the exciting, complex, poignant, hilarious worlds of (mostly) women.

You’ll regularly find novelists and feminist thinkers worked into jokes in Wood. Simone de Beauvoir appears at least twice (“I offered to have intercourse with him… I’m with Simone de Beauvoir on that one,” says Petula Gordino during one of her barmy monologues in the sitcom “dinnerladies.” In the sketch series “Acorn Antiques,” Mrs Overall, in a typically miscued entrance, fluffs the word “triplets” and offers: “The giblets are a little bit factious, I promised to pop up and read them a bit of Simone de Beauvoir.”)

Margaret Drabble also appears at least twice, in Wood’s older stand-up material, and at the beginning of the BBC documentary Great Railway Journeys. The Brontë sisters, The Female Eunuch, Jane Austen also show up in various monologues. Some of the more rigid attitude of feminist criticism like the policing of words also come in for a parody. Tony the canteen manager in “dinnerladies” tells sex jokes and doesn’t hide his porn-reading habits but is also a perfectly decent man and the male romantic lead of the show, which is a masterfully sly critique of the late 90s’ obsession with sexual harassment at work. (The show came out, incidentally, shortly after the Monica Lewinsky scandal.)

Wood knows a thousand and one funny ways of talking about ladyparts. “Mrs Fernihough can’t be here, she had a slight accident and scratched her Volvo”, says Nicola in the 1989 TV playlet Mens Sana in Thingummy Doodah. “Answer me one question, love. Where is my Clint?” is how the angry mother of the underage Clint who’s locked in the washroom with his 40-years-older girlfriend Petula opens in “dinnerladies.” “Fortunately, I just had my TV mended. I say mended — a shifty young man in plimsolls waggled my aerial and wolfed my Gipsy Creams, but that’s the comprehensive system for you,” is among the most memorable of the many memorable complaints in the Kitty monologues (As Seen on TV, 1985).

A lot of Wood’s material plays with people’s unease about female body. She revels in its freakishness, dissecting it and showing the hilarity of it. She turns the presumed abject into funny. There’s considerable bravery there. Male comedians generally avoid talking about their bodies (discounting the toilet and fart jokes), don’t make fun of their genitals, size, body hair, muscle tone, health problems and aging. The male body is still a Dark Continent, Herr Freud.

Wood is also a comedic poet of the female friendship. She has a sharp eye for the various mad attachments, complicities and relationships that women develop among themselves, either as siblings, mothers and daughters, friends, co-workers, or lovers. A solid number of lesbians keep appearing in the comedy of this fab straight ally, and the same can’t be said of the comedy of the out-lesbian comediennes like Lily Tomlin, Wanda Sykes, Ellen deGeneres (back in the day when she was actually funny), Jane Lynch. There’s more queer women content in Wood than just about any other comedy, and surely there should be an award for that? Kitty’s producer is a “radical feminist lesbian” (“What would the Queen Mom do?” she wonders), Mrs Overall mangles her coming out as a lesbian in a ratings-driven update to “Acorn Antiques” (“I am a le… a le… a Lebanese”), the actress playing Mrs Overall, Bo Beaumont, is shown in a Christmas special with a permanent spinster companion, Pam in the Pam Song finds herself living with a woman for a bit, and there’s a splendid parody sketch of Brief Encounter with a lesbian twist.

Relationships among women can be bloody hilarious. Unequal attachments, dependencies, competiveness, diva worship, blind merging, passive aggression, endless conversations about emotions, can all be hysterically funny and still too few people mine this territory. Wood luckily does.

Her mothers are all wackjobs.

Ha, it’s brilliant! The mother characters in Wood fail colossally at motherhood. They do that either by being overbearing — Thora Hird played a side-splittingly domineering mother in the BBC movie Pat & Margaret and a judgmental, permanently disappointed and equally funny grump of a mother in an amazing bit part in “dinnerladies” — or completely absent, like Vera in P&M;, the parents in Cross the Channel sketch, and the mother of all lousy mothers, Petula Gordino in “dinnerladies.” But here’s the thing: by being funny, those mothers sneak into our sympathy. There isn’t any mother-shaming in Wood even though there are tons of awful mothers. You’re laughing and you’re thinking, it’s kinda all right. Children will blame their parents for everything anyway. And you can only blame your parents for your problems credibly until up to a certain age. The Wood jokes with mothers are equally the jokes about their children, who fail to see that they should move on from assigning power over their own lives to their mothers in perpetuity.

Petula in “dinnerladies”: “I had her too early… There was too much going on… You can’t jive with one hand on a pram handle.”

And again: “Look, Bren. I’m sorry I’ve not been a very good mother. Still, you can’t be good at everything and I was A1 with a hula hoop. I could do two, going in opposite directions. Was harder with me clothes on.”

Nobody is happy in their relationship. Nobody does sex with ease — if at all. Everybody fails at it, fails at playing the right role. Women and men, both.

Welcome to the planet earth and facts of life! Besides, some of this in Wood is about a particularly English-of-a-certain-class hang-ups around sex.

But “Acorn Antiques” just looks too weird.

Because it’s unlike anything made before or since. It was originally intended as a parody of the low production values (and no acting and writing values) of British daytime soap operas, but has since become a milestone in TV history. Every frame in “AA” is packed: Berta’s costume yawns between the buttons as she probably grew a size since the costume department had any money; Mrs Overall comes in at wrong times or is visible in the corner waiting for her entrance; lines get missed in melodramatic scenes and then get ad-libbed ineptly; mics and lights appear where they’re not supposed to; people trip over cables; the camera fails to follow a character who moves or forgets to zoom in or out; lamps obstruct the view over the character speaking; action gets commented on before the character actually did anything (Mrs Overall’s choking on her macaroon stuns Miss Babs even before it happens); the street backdrop seen through the window rocks gently; product placements are grafted on… It’s spectacular.

All right, but isn’t Victoria Wood doing proper drama now? She did “Housewife, 49,” which even I managed to see…

And which is about my mother. Minus the war and the raised consciousness, that is.

Well, that BAFTA was deserved. Would be nice to see her act in or direct a feature film.

Yeah. Imagine what would have happened if she wasn’t outbid by the Disney Corporation for film rights to the story of Calendar Girls. The film could have actually been good.

I read about her earliest play Talent and saw some of it in a YT clip, and she looks like Lena Dunham! The whole thing is Lena Dunham-y.

If that’ll make her palatable to New Yorkers, fine, I’ll go with it.

Plus, her songs are a hoot. The lyrics! I think Noel Coward had a daughter.

Yes! I see you’re getting the hang of this.

I think so, too. Shall we go for a Babycham or two?

Sure. Then later, we can discover the many ways we’re incompatible.

Previous Appreciations: “99% Invisible”: The Awesome Little Radio Show About Design and Romance Novels, The Last Great Bastion Of Underground Writing

Toronto-based writer Lydia Perović is a practising, proselytizing Woodhist. As for other activities, her first novel Incidental Music is coming out in the fall.