theartsdesk Q&A: Victoria Wood, Part 1 (Let's Do It) | reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: Victoria Wood, Part 1 (Let's Do It)
theartsdesk Q&A: Victoria Wood, Part 1 (Let's Do It)
Remembering the national treasure and comedy great, who has died aged 62
Victoria Wood (1953-2016), who died today following a "short but brave" battle with cancer, preferred not to be thought of as a national institution. But it's hard to know how else to describe a woman whose work touched everything from stand-up and musical theatre to sketch show and TV drama, whose genius remained undimmed for five fruitful decades, and who united several generations in awe and affection for this towering and very British talent.
Wood's TV career began in in the Seventies with New Faces and That's Life!, but it was her play Talent – with a plum role for frequent collaborator Julie Walters – that showed what a gifted writer she was, and that she had as sure a touch with drama as with comedy. Sold-out tours and popular sketch shows followed, including Victoria Wood As Seen on TV (featuring the peerless Crossroads spoof Acorn Antiques, later adapted into a stage musical), as well as sitcom Dinnerladies and ITV drama Housewife, 49 – the latter winning Wood Baftas for both writing and performance. In 2008, she was created a CBE.
One of Wood's defining features, which won her ardent and lifelong fans, was her total frankness – about weight issues, depression, therapy and the hysterectomy which at the time was less hysterical than it became in her subsequent stand-up tour. Here is our 2009 two-part theartsdesk Q&A, in which she discusses a long and varied career.
The second installment focuses on Dinnerladies, Housewife, 49 and Acorn Antiques the Musical. In this first conversation she talks about her early career in talent contests, her years in therapy and her decision to give up stand-up, not to mention her latest sketch show Midlife Christmas and "The Ballad of Barry and Freda". A glorious riff on the distance between the romantic and the domestic as a hot-to-trot wife tries to seduce her reluctant husband, it is the perfect distillation of Wood’s comic genius.
JASPER REES: So you’re doing sketches again.
VICTORIA WOOD: I know! I just felt like it. It’s me and Julie [Walters] and a lot of other people. It’s got my tribute to Lark Rise to Candleford in it. It just came over me that I just had to make some jokes and wear a bonnet.
What else is in there?
I’ve done the midlife Olympics 2009 from Brentford. That’s the ladies’ pentathlon, five different events going through the programme.
Do you make a tit of yourself in that?
No, I’m the commentator so I don't. And then there’s a fly-on-the-wall documentary following the actress who plays Mrs Overall, Bo Beaumont, as she does different things like going on Strictly Come Dancing and Dancing on Ice. A week of her life. I’m playing her flatmate Wendy. And I’ve done a dance number. I’ve done Nick and Margaret from The Apprentice dancing together (Wood as Margaret Mountford pictured right).
Why is the song called “The Ballad of Barry and Freda” when everyone knows it as “Let’s Do It”?
Because it starts:
Freda and Barry sat one night.
The sky was clear, the stars were bright.
The wind was soft, the moon was up.
Freda drained her cocoa cup.
She licked her lips, she felt sublime.
She switched off Gardeners' Question Time.
Barry cringed in fear and dread
As Freda grabbed his tie and said:
"Let's do it! Let’s do it!
Do it while the mood is right..."
I’m doing an updated version of that. Just a few new lyrics here and there. I’ve kept the best verses of the old version.
What made you want to do the song again?
I thought, “Don’t piss about with a new song when you could do the song that everybody knows and likes and I probably won’t do any more specials. I’m just in the mood to do one this year. Finish with that. Just whizz it up with a big band and 20 dancers.”
Could the BBC afford it?
They have paid but not very much. A bit skimpy on the old budget.
How much fun was it?
It was quite hard work. It was all on green screen in a boiling hot studio. I’m doing a live version and mixing between the live version and the recorded version.
Why is that song so universally loved?
Because it’s jolly.
Did you know when you were writing it that it would be such a hit?
No. I knew it would go well. I didn't think that people would sing it to me in the street. And you can get it as a ringtone on your phone.
Watch Victoria Wood perform "The Ballad of Barry and Freda":
Your parents didn't give you a northern name like Freda. Did you ask them why they called you Victoria?
I was named after Queen Victoria. My mother was obsessed with Queen Victoria. Half the books in our house were about Queen Victoria.
Would you be prepared to attribute some of your success to being the youngest of four?
Yeah, definitely. You feel you are a step behind. I think it gives you an extra need to make your mark. It makes you more competitive. The next one up is two-and-a-half years but the others are all five years apart. My brother is 13 years older. My painter sister is eight years older and my video editor sister is two-and-a-half years older.
Would you be a different comedian if you didn’t come from Lancashire?
I don’t think I’d be one. Most comedians come from Lancashire. You name me any famous Ipswich comedians. There aren’t any. Liverpool, Lancashire, Scotland, a few in Newcastle and a few in the East End. That’s about it really. It’s a wonderful accent, I think, and they have a really good way of expressing themselves. It’s very unemotional. You’d never say, “Oh darling, you were marvellous.” People in Lancashire would say, “Oh, that’s not bad,” or “I didn’t mind it.” Everything’s double negatives.
Are you happy with that?
It’s just the way I was brought up. I’m quite a celebratory person and I think I do a celebratory job, but it’s just the way you couch it.
Do you question your need for the adrenaline surge of making people laugh?
No, I’m not puritanical about that. I’m puritanical about almost everything else but not that. I think it’s perfectly valid to go out and get laughs. I think it’s a lovely thing to do actually, it’s a lovely life-affirming job: you go out and you make people laugh. I think that’s great. Who wouldn’t want to do that? As long as you do it well, I don’t think there’s any problem.
When did you discover you were funny?
About three or four. People used to ask me to pull faces. And it just gave me a good feeling. It was just something very very deeply rooted and instinctive. I didn’t feel I had any choice in the matter. I’ve got to use it. I started writing funny things at school. When I was 12 if we had a school trip I used to write funny accounts and read it out to people. I suppose I just had a good eye for things. But the first things I wrote were all very derivative of other comedy writers.
How important was it back then to get the laugh?
It was really important to me because I didn’t have a huge amount of confidence in other areas at all. It was my way of getting in with people really. I’m not like the sad person who was being bullied. My way of being in was to act a bit strange. I felt they were normal and I wasn’t quite normal, so I exaggerated my oddness.
I was always desperate for attention. I’m not now. But I was then. And it’s a good way to get it.
If you could find a common denominator among comedians, isn't it that they used comedy as a saving grace in childhood?
One common denominator is that we’re all people that have not been involved. If you’ve not been involved in something, if you’re an outsider – comedians always give the outsider’s view. They don’t give the standard view on things. They give the skewed view. Whereas if you’re totally at one with society you’ve got no need to comment on it. If you feel excluded in any way, then you have a chip on your shoulder to a greater or lesser extent and that’s your way of getting back at people. We feel we wanted to be in the netball team or we wanted to get the girl and we couldn’t. It’s sort of like the revenge of the nerds, I’m afraid. There are very few gorgeous-looking self-possessed comedians. We’re all fat or weedy or spotty or we’ve got specs. We’ve got something. It’s a way of being at ease in a group, because you’re in charge, you set the agenda, you decide what going to happen.
Are you going to write your autobiography?
I will do it one day. I think you have to be at a certain point. I just hate going into a bookshop and seeing all those books by people who can’t write with their big fat photograph on the cover, people who’ve done nothing and can’t string a sentence together and I just think it devalues people who can put a sentence together and can write a book. I’m just a bit snobby about it. There are so many memoirs. It’s like writing a school essay. Deadly. I’ve been offered a ton of money. I would like to write one about my first few years in show business. I’m not interested in writing about my family particularly. I’m not ready to open that can of worms. If I did write one it would be about my childhood, about my first days in show business, which were really interesting and would make a really nice story.
When did you first appear in front of a television audience rather than an audience of your peers?
I was on television first in 1973. I was 20 then. I did local television. And then I did New Faces. Because I was very naïve I thought New Faces obviously will be the start of a Popstars-style fame explosion, and it wasn’t really. I just didn’t fit into any category. When you’re doing something new, but not necessarily doing it very well because you’ve only just started, people can’t fit you into a pigeonhole and it used to bother people. Somebody new is not following on from anybody else. You’re not good-looking enough for this and you’re not a man and you’re not this and you’re not that.
What in your perception are the main differences between the old talent shows and the new ones?
It’s of a different world. I had a very big audience, probably bigger than a lot of the talent shows now because more people watched television then than they do now. But it was part of an evening’s programming. It wasn’t the big focus of a whole evening like Britain’s Got Talent. So it wasn’t so blown up, it wasn’t so hyped, if you went on and did badly it wouldn’t ruin your whole career. It would ruin your career for about a year but not more than that. People went on it who were already in show business and just wanted to jack themselves up the ladder. It had a different vibe to it. It wasn’t about humiliating people or raising them to a pinnacle very very quickly. It was more normal.
So what do you make of the phenomenon of the modern talent show?
I just find it really so artificial and like a big puff ball. There’s nothing actually there. When one’s finished you can’t think who won it the year before even. So it is that terrible cliché of 15 minutes of fame and that has come true. Of course there’s an endless supply of people who want to be on it so they’ve only themselves to blame, I suppose. I don’t watch Britain’s Got Talent. Some people raved to me about Susan Boyle so I did watch that bit on YouTube. And I just think it bears as much relation to real life as a cave painting. If you look at it as a cave painting then I don't have any objection to it but if you think that really happened spontaneously then you’re an idiot. I’m not interested. I’d rather see something properly made up and properly acted and properly written than this half-arsed manipulated thing. Can’t be bothered with it.
Are more people clamouring for that level of fame than when you started?
There seem to be more. I feel that there’s more. It’s hard to know because now in a talent contest you’re filmed the minute you’re in the queue. You’re pre-screened and all that sort of thing. It’s much more cleverly packaged than it was before. We just turned up in some old nightclub in the daytime and auditioned and nobody filmed that and you either got on or you didn’t get on it.
Would you be discovered now?
No, because I don’t think I would have been good-looking enough actually. That’s another thing. It’s got very much more hard-line about what people look like on television. I’d either have to have been massively huge or very very slim and goodlooking. There’s much less room now for normal-looking people, which I think is a sad thing.
Is it part of a wider shift in television?
Yeah, definitely. The whole emphasis has shifted away from written, rehearsed and acted things to the whole docusoap reality quiz. It’s just shifted away from talent and rehearsal. It’s such a shame. It’s obviously all down to economics. There’s not even a script-reading unit at the BBC any more. All these people who used to send in fantastic things will all be undiscovered. I just think it’s sad when that whole resource we have of the writers and the performers are not used and if they can do a reality show or a quiz or something that’s cheap or paint somebody’s cupboard purple then they will. I just think it’s quite sad. Once you’ve taken away that principle that you invest money in and care and you rehearse and you let people breathe and you give people space and you respect their abilities, once that’s gone I’m not sure that will come back. They’ve systematically destroyed make-up departments, wardrobe departments, wig departments. In the end people won’t know how to do dramas and comedies because they won’t have been trained to do them. I just think once things have gone…
What’s annoying is there’s really good people, there must be a whole swathe of really good writers who can’t get on to television. It was never that great when I first started. It just seems worse now because people have to really fight. You can’t even have a pilot. Before you’re given a pilot you have to do your sitcom in a church hall for a load of frosty-faced executives who are on the phone and have got a taxi running. It’s like the people making the decisions don’t really know how to read a script any more. The comedy was run by people who knew about comedy. Perhaps they don’t now.
How often did you enter a talent contest?
I only went on New Faces. But I only got on that because I knew somebody who worked on the make-up department and she put my form to the top of the pile or otherwise I’d have been at the back of the queue and not been seen.
Did it make a difference to your career in the long run?
I think it did. I had such an odd start. I was still at university doing local telly and then I did New Faces and although I didn't win more than my heat there was this spin-off called The Summer Show, which was a sketch show, and I got picked to be on that. It was just six people – me and Lenny Henry and Marti Caine and three other people – so I felt sort of an affirmation to be picked to be on a proper telly show. You got proper money. You were paid something like 50 quid which for somebody who was on the dole at something like 11 quid a week was quite a hike.
Were talent shows de rigueur if you wanted to get ahead in light entertainment?
No, I think it was just me. It was a leg-up, validation, something that would... I was really struggling at university so I had to hold on to the fact that I was good at something. I believed I was good at something. I believed that I would be spotted and that everything would turn round. That was my belief as an idiot 19-year-old. I did one talent show at the Dolce Vita in Birmingham. And I did one in London. I wasn’t any good. I did these songs at the piano but they weren’t very good and they weren’t very entertaining. And people would just sort of ignore me really. I had a lot of belief.
What are your memories of actually doing New Faces?
It was just very buzzy to be on a big hit show. New Faces was much bigger than Opportunity Knocks. It was the one to be on. And so there was a lot of excitement. And when I first did it I did get very high marks, I remember. I was very excited that people like Ted Ray and Mickie Most, who was a record producer, said, “She’s fantastic.” I thought, “Ooh-eh! I am good. I am good.” And then the next time I didn’t win - I think Les Dennis won or something. I can’t remember. He was a comedian and impressionist. He was only 20 as well. He was just a little boy. So it was all really exciting to be in a big ATV studio in the middle of Birmingham where they make Crossroads and it was telly. I was in love with the idea of being on telly.
How did you feel winning your heat?
I can’t remember very well, actually. I did a really stupid thing. The night I won a man came up and said, “I think you’re absolutely brilliant. I want to be your manager.” And I went, “Oh yes, please, thank you very much.” And I signed a contract with this madman for three years during which time he never accepted any work for me, or hardly any.
On what grounds?
I don’t know. I don't know why he wanted to sign me. He had no interest really in doing any work for me at all. It was just weird and I was so stupid to do it.
So you just disappeared?
I just disappeared, yeah. I occasionally played a folk club or something like that if I would get offered something locally. I was living in Birmingham in a bedsit on my own. All my friends had left university and left Birmingham and I was still in Birmingham on my own. Not a good time.
So how did you get out of the relationship with the manager?
Eventually I met Jasper Carrott’s manager and he said, “I don't think this contract is worth anything. I don’t think you have to abide by its terms. I don't think it’s a legal contract.” So after about two years he sort of faded away.
What was he called?
I’d better not say what he’s called.
Is he still going?
He can’t be. He can’t be! He must be dead.
Who else did he have on his books?
He just signed you?
So he probably didn’t know what he was doing.
No. He must have got carried away in the moment.
But in the moment of winning there was a great sense of fulfilment?
I can’t actually remember winning so it must be not. I remember getting all these marks. I remember getting lots of nines and nines and nines out of 10. I think I got 38 marks out of 40 so I was really chuffed with that. And the next time I was on I did another song that wasn’t quite as good and somebody said, “Well she’s very good but she’ll never work because she’s a sophisticated cabaret act and there’s no places for her to work.” Then I was a bit cast down. I kept meeting people who said, “Yes we’ve seen you on New Faces. I don’t know what we can do with you. I don’t know where you’d work.” I kept getting told that all the time. It was very dispiriting.
Did you take that advice to heart or did you know what the right place for you was?
I didn’t know what the right place was. I suppose deep down I knew it would work out somehow. But there were four years during which I didn't really work at all and when I did it was terrible.
What turned out to be the right place for you?
The first break was a comedian called John Garry who is still going. He was like the first punk comedian, like an alternative comedian, and I met him in about 1976 because he was in Birmingham as well. And I was his support on a little tour that he was doing and that went to Battersea Arts Centre, and Dusty Hughes who was then running the Bush saw me and asked me to be in a revue at the Bush Theatre to write the songs. I was asked to write four songs based on the week’s news on 5th June 1978. And so I wrote three songs about three different deaths. It was all about death. It was called “In at the Death”.
Guy the Gorilla, a boy in a car crash being chased by the police, and a man whose wife had died of cancer and he had helped her die. And for the fourth one I couldn’t think of any more songs to write about death so I wrote a sketch instead and that sketch was the first properly funny thing I ever wrote. That was a big break, writing that sketch for Julie and me (pictured).
Was there a light bulb moment when you realised that this was what you were meant to be doing?
It wasn’t that. It was after four years of trying to be funny and being nearly funny, which is awful, I was funny. So that was it then. And then I knew how you wrote a joke.
The same year you meet Julie Walters you wrote Talent for Sheffield Crucible. Does it have a special place in your heart?
It has a special place in your heart because I remember the writing of it quite clearly. I used to write it at night and my boyfriend used to type it for me the next day. It was like a real adventure that we were doing together in this little flat in Morecambe. I put magic in it because he was a magician and we knew lots of pensioners who did magic, so I put them into it. It reflects a lot of what was going on in our lives at the time. I feel sentimental about it because of that, not because of it - just the memories of being in that little flat in Morecambe. It makes me sad now, obviously. It’s the things connected with my real life that stay with me, not the play. The play’s not a real thing.
But it went to the ICA and ended up on television.
And it won lots of prizes. It was my first thing on television. And that was great.
It’s an affectionate portrait of a young woman backstage at a low-rent talent contest. Her dumpy best friend Maureen comes along to keep her company. Did you write the part of Julie for Julie Walters?
I wrote it for her but she didn't play it onstage. It was very influenced by meeting her. Not that she was like the character at all, but I knew it was a part that she could play. She was a very extraordinary person. I was trying to capture things that she did when she acted that I knew only she would be able to do. It was great when she did it on telly.
Did you put yourself in it?
Maureen wasn’t me. I was both. I put a lot of my own feelings of being uncomfortable in the world into Maureen and a lot of my excitement about being in show business into Julie, I suppose.
It was revived in 2009 at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Does it hold up for you?
I think it’s not badly written. I can't really judge it any more. I couldn’t judge it then. I wrote it without thinking about it. I didn't rewrite it. It is what it is. So I more or less left it alone rather than trying to tweak lines or make it what I would write now. I’ve left it as that 25 year-old person wrote it and then the new bits are as I would write them now.
Could you have written a line like “They weren’t giving cups out, cos the metal was going for Spitfires” in 1978?
No I don’t think so. You would hope you would be better 30 years on than you were then. There are some funny lines in the old version but there are some things I can do now that I couldn't do then, that I’ve learnt to do.
Have you changed your authorial voice?
I don't know. I think I’m much kinder now than I was then. I think I’ve got a much less bleak vision of things than I had then. I’m in a different place, I suppose, as a person.
You say that you would now be deemed too normal to get a start in television. Is the issue of size something you’ve thought about a lot?
In LA there’s a more extreme version of what we have here. The actresses are thinner but the people are bigger. I’m really interested in why our lovely slim actresses from England go over there they suddenly shrink when they get there. They are obviously under some compulsion to match up with everybody else. The press will say, “She’s gorgeous and curvy,” “Ooh, she’s too thin,” “Ooh, she’s too fat.” I’m interested in who’s writing these pieces in Heat and Now and all those magazines, doing “12 worst bottoms” and “12 worst cleavages”. Who’s writing those? I think big ugly girls are writing those articles probably. It isn’t just to do with people wishing they were a bit thinner. Why do they? Who says you shouldn’t have a big bottom? This is the first century where people have felt oppressed by being in the wrong body. A hundred years ago, you wouldn’t have got somebody saying, “I feel really bad, my arms are really bad, I can’t go out.” People are so anxious about it. I think it’s really sad. It makes me angry for people.
You yourself have had your therapy to deal with an eating disorder. Is food less of a problem?
I’ve come to see it doesn’t really go away, whereas before I was always trying to find the thing that would solve it, so that I would no longer have any problem with food or eating. Now I think I probably will always and that’s all right as well and that I can accommodate that. So actually it’s easier to be in that state of acceptance and not worry about it.
Do you have much truck with fancy restaurants?
No, I can’t be bothered. I do like cafés. I’m mad about cafés: places where you have cups of tea and toasted tea cakes. But not quiche. I think that’s very depressing when you see a bit of quiche and a bit of lettuce and it’s always cold. I associate that with John Lewis. I love going for cups of tea with people but I don’t like going for meals. It just bores the arse off me.
How about telly chefs? Do they interest you?
I couldn’t lift an eyelid. Saving Delia’s presence (pictured with Walters and Wood in Victoria Wood's Midlife Christmas) I can’t get interested. Having an eating problem, it’s such a big leap from that to enjoying watching.
What age were you when you first went to therapy?
Quite old. I was trying to get to the bottom of what was wrong and I didn’t hit on it. I diverted and ducked and dived. I just felt that I was very very very unhappy but I couldn’t see why because I had two children, house, husband, job. I couldn’t see where it was coming from at all. I was exploring different things really.
Was it ever something you felt like incorporating into your comedy?
I couldn’t possibly have mentioned it then because I was right in the middle of it. I think you have to assimilate all these things. You can’t rush off and have therapy in order to get material. When you’re actually having it you have to have it. I had it for lots of different things. Depression. I just went through a really bad patch and so it just seemed a good thing to do.
Did you talk about childhood?
Yeah, enough to sort it out in my own mind, which was useful. I was never into aimlessly hashing and thrashing it out and having to go every day.
Did you come to an understanding that the child is the mother of the woman?
Yes I did, because speaking out loud to somebody it clarifies your thoughts and there were a lot of things I’d just not made any connection because I’d not applied any intelligence to those areas of my life. All my intelligence was focused on my job and none of it on my life and that’s why I had had such a stupid life for so long. I was very isolated. If you’ve got an eating disorder then eating replaces almost any need that you have. It’s the same with any addiction. Every requirement is met by that one thing, if it’s drugs or betting or whatever. So whatever you feel – in my case you met it with food. It covers up your feelings. While you’re eating you’re totally blanked out, you’re not feeling anything. It puts up a barrier between you and people because people are scary but food’s not scary, you know exactly where you are with it, whereas a person is unpredictable and so people with that sort of disorder retreat into food. When you’re with somebody you’re thinking, well, I won’t have to talk to them much longer and then I can go and eat something. You are in a state of high tension that is only relieved by eating. It isolates you socially. You have to do it privately.
I was also battling with this idea of being known for being overweight and being big and on the one hand being very offended that they said so and on the other, why should it be noticeable? Why does that always get mentioned in the first sentence? When I was interviewed about it I always had to say I was quite happy. I wasn’t at all happy as I was but I felt that that was a good party line to take. But I think as time's passed and I’ve moved on from various problems that I’ve had I’m happy to talk about it.
Have any of these issues informed your comedy?
No, I don’t think so, and I’ve kept them very much out of that region. I found them difficult to talk about for a long time anyway and I wasn’t aware of what was going on. I didn’t want to do anything that added fuel to the flames. Even when I was being fat and being thin I never did articles about how much weight I’d lost or what I ate. I really kept off it. It’s just like a tidal wave of obsession and I didn’t want to add to it.
Could marital breakdown be incorporated into comedy?
It certainly could be. I don’t know whether by me. It would be very unfair on the other people involved really, that you have an arena that they don’t have. But it would be very hard not to see the funny side as things got easier. That’s just how I operate. I can’t help it. I’ve got a sense of humour. I can’t avoid having it, though at its worst my sense of humour wasn’t operating at all. It’s unimaginable that something big like that would happen to you and it wouldn’t in the end be assimilated into your work.
Did that new very concrete trauma give you access to a deeper understanding of sadness?
Definitely. For one thing when you’re really miserable you stop being depressed. Do you see what I mean? If you suffer from depression and then you’re really miserable about something you’re not depressed any more. You’ve gone into a different segment of the spectrum. And that was really useful. When I felt at my worst but I was walking around operating perfectly normally I was thinking, “All around the street, everywhere I go, there must be people whose children who have just died and their husbands have just died and they are up and dressed and operating normally.” It just gave me a little insight. I don’t claim that being separated is the worst pain in the world but it’s painful. It gave me insight into people’s ways of surviving. You could be with somebody and they could have a whole ribbon unfolding at the back of their heads of absolute terror or pain. It made me much more aware of what pain people might be living in and yet not showing it. It made me more empathetic.
In 2002 your last stand-up tour, Victoria Wood At It Again, was all about an invasive surgical procedure. Why?
I had an emergency hysterectomy. I’d never had an operation. I'd never been in hospital.
What was funny about it though?
Oh, lots of things. I ended up in casualty.
Were you thinking, this’ll be funny?
I wasn’t when I was in real bad pain. As soon as I had a painkiller I did perk up tremendously. When I was sitting waiting for a scan next to a woman who had come from Holloway prison between two policemen I thought, this is quite funny. So it does kick in, luckily. But I was as miserable as anybody before I went in. I think it’s horrible to look on your own life or other people’s as raw material. But most of us in any situation will say, "Actually it was quite funny afterwards." We’re all like that, and I just have that probably a bit more than most people. It happened in the beginning of March. I had an operation and then I took about three weeks off and then I had to start writing the shows.
Why did you give up stand-up after that tour?
It is so lonely. I can see how nice it would be to have an entourage sometimes, people sitting around with you. I didn’t have any people. The silent dressing-room when you’re just watching the clock - it can be a bit grim. For years I turned up at these odd jobs all by myself. I’d drive myself, do the job and drive away again. But that’s because I’m very puritanical. It would never have occurred to me to pay somebody to come with me.
I didn’t want to end as the equivalent of old golfing comedians. I didn’t want to get totally out of date. Which you just wouldn’t know. That’s the sad thing. I’d be going on doing jokes about Sanatogen. I didn’t want to be like that. I wanted to leave when I wanted to leave. I didn’t just want to have an audience that’s as old as me or older. You can only follow your instincts and there’s a lot to be said for leaving something when it’s going really well. I didn’t want to drop back down and end up doing little theatres. I had a ball doing big theatres. Nobody stays at the top. Very very few people can keep it going. Billy Connolly has been fantastic. I love Ken Dodd. I think he’s really really good. He’s never come over on television. He can’t do it. But onstage he’s fantastic.
I didn’t feel I had much more to offer. Without going to America, I didn’t really have any new markets to conquer in this country. That would only be for commercial reasons. And I hate doing the same thing over and over, just having the same job year after year. I thought, “I’m really pleased with this show.” I really liked the fact that I didn’t sit at the piano and I liked the fact that there was so much stand-up in it. And maybe I should stop now. But I didn’t do a Frank Sinatra. I just said to myself, “I don’t think I’ll be doing this again.” And when I stood on the stage of the Albert Hall for the last time I had a good look round and thought, “That’s it.”
And then a couple of years ago you were the headline act at BAFTA’s birthday party.
When they said there’s going to be this BAFTA show, I felt there’s something missing in my life if I don’t do it ever. I don’t want to do another big tour and I don’t want to go out and talk for two hours but I thought perhaps I could just do a little bit just to put my toe in the water. I wrote a whole load of new stuff. They only needed about eight minutes. I thought I’ll just do what I want and have a good time, and I did. It was nice to know that I can still do it.
Watch Victoria Wood perform for BAFTA in 2007:
Why are there so many stand-ups these days?
Weird, isn’t it?
And they’re all 22 and just out of the JCR.
I wasn’t funny when I was 22. You haven’t got anything to say. There’ll always be some funny ones and the others will just fade away hopefully. I never go and watch any so I don’t know what goes on. Everybody thinks they can do it, I suppose. It’s easier than learning the piano.
Every stand-up swears these days. You never did.
I used to say “fuck” when I first started. But then I went through a whole phase when I didn’t say it and it got too late to say it. I thought my audience wouldn’t want to hear me say it. Maybe it would just sound odd. Even though it’s a word I love. I thought, can I say “arse” or not? How bizarre that I even have to think about it. But I do have a following and you do have to take their wishes into account. I think I would say “shit”. I wish I had free rein to speak as I speak in my ordinary life but I think I can’t get away with it.
It would be like the Queen Mother swearing.
That’s just so awful to hear you say that.
Do you feel like a national institution?
Better than "treasure". That’s what people say. You don’t wake up feeling like an institution. You feel like going into one.
What do you think of the word “comedienne”?
I loathe it myself. I hate it applied to myself. I always scribble it out.
In 30 years since you wrote that sketch for the Bush, no woman has followed on from you and had a similar kind of career.
No. But anybody good will be different. People send me scripts and say, “This is in your style”, and it’s always so abysmal you think, why do you bother? Write something of your own. I always write back and say, "Thank you very much, I write my own." If there’s anybody I particularly dislike at the moment I always suggest they send it to them.
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