When my Mam texted me yesterday to ask if I’d “heard about Victoria Wood” I headed straight online and there it was. I gasped, actually gasped. I felt sick. And then I cried.
Mine is, of course, a fan’s grief. Like so many others. I did not know Victoria Wood, I never met her, and any sadness of mine is nothing compared to what her friends and family are feeling. I would never claim to understand, or be on par with, their grief.
But as a fan, Victoria Wood was part of my life. She shaped it, in a way.
I first saw her live in 1997 at Newcastle’s City Hall. My Mam took me along. She was a fan and she wanted to share her with me. I remember us laughing so so hard. I remember a joke about brushing past a computer with a large bottom and accidentally writing a Mr Man book. I remember the audience starting to clap along to Barry and Freda, and Wood advising us to save our strength as it’s a very long song.
I ate up everything Victoria Wood related after that, starting with the stand-up show VHS (which I could probably recite to you now, and subsequently wore out). In a school talent show I chose to put on one of her sketches. When I saw Acorn Antiques: The Musical! I was so excited I made myself ill. I even watched The One Show once cos she was on. That’s commitment.
She showed me that it was ok to be funny. I was an awkward teenager, I never quite fit in, and she was a sanctuary – she was front and centre, telling jokes, being silly, being clever, with her wonderful turn of phrase and observations of our quirks and eccentricities. She wasn’t glamorous, she wasn’t preened within an inch of her life, she was normal and relatable.
I wrote my first play at University and it was basically me trying to be Victoria Wood. I was eighteen trying to write about middle aged women, capture that minute, those jokes. It didn’t particularly work, of course it didn’t, but that motivation to sit down at my desk and even try came from me wanting to be like her.
My second play was much the same, but by the third I was moving away and finding my own voice, my own style, my own preoccupations. And that’s ok. Part of the joy of Victoria Wood is the strength of her voice – her choice of words, the rhythm of a joke, the structure of the line.
“Yes I do look rather startled, don’t I. It was taken in a photo booth and somebody had just poked an éclair through the curtains”. THAT is a Victoria Wood line. It’s human, it’s odd, it’s bloody funny. In my own writing, I long for people to say THAT is an Alison Carr line and they have, and that makes me happy.
So no, I don’t write like Victoria Wood, but she inspired me to try. And times when I’ve been struggling at my desk or wanted to pack it all in, I think ‘well Victoria Wood didn’t’. If I want to achieve even an iota of what she did, I have to keep going. And I do. Because she worked hard. Talent is talent and she had it in spades, but hard work is something else. You don’t do what she did across so many different mediums by not putting the work in. She wrote stage plays and screenplays (not the same discipline), original music and songs; she performed stand-up, acted for the screen in comic and serious roles; and she directed.
And in all of this she never apologised for her talent or success. It seemed like she was in charge from early on. She had a voice, calling out BBC execs when they demoted a special from Christmas Day to Christmas Eve. She showed me you can be shy in real life, but let your work roar for you. And hers roared loud, and will continue to do so. She is gone too soon of course, and it’s a tragedy, but what a legacy she has left behind.
I sat in the Live Theatre bar last night while my play was on stage, and raised a glass to Victoria Wood. It’s been a long road from the City Hall that night nearly twenty years ago, with lots of bumps and influences along the way, but I genuinely don’t think I’d be in the career I am now if it wasn’t for her.
She made me want to try. She made me think it was ok to want to try. She made me put the work in. She made me laugh.