Director: Baz Taylor (Screenplays), Stuart Orme (Wood and Walters), David G. Hillier (An Audience With…), Alasdair Macmillan (Julie Walters and Friends), Gavin Millar (Housewife, 49)
Screenplay: Victoria Wood, Alan Bennett, Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell
Producers: Peter Eckersley (Screenplays), Brian Armstrong (Wood and Walters), David G. Hillier (An Audience With…), Nicholas Barrett (Julie Walters and Friends), Piers Wenger (Housewife, 49)
Starring: Victoria Wood, Julie Walters, Duncan Preston, David Thelfall, Stephanie Cole, Rik Mayall, Jim Bowen, Tracey Ullman
Year: 1979 – 1981 (Screenplays), 1981 – 1982 (Wood and Walters), 1988 (An Audience With…), 1991 (Julie Walters and Friends), 2006 (Housewife, 49)
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 573 mins approx
There are certain people whose involvement in anything will pique your interest. Such is the case with Victoria Wood, whose diverse career I’ve followed since I was a little boy who just about understood the naughty bits in her songs. So when the opportunity to review a new Network DVD release entitled Victoria Wood: Wood Work, A Celebration came up, I put my name forward before I’d even confirmed what it was. Judging from the ropey pun in the title and in light of her tragic death this year, I thought Wood Work would probably be an hour long documentary about Victoria Wood’s genius and I was quite happy to go one more round with a bunch of celebrity superfans picking apart The Ballad of Barry and Freda if it was interspersed with clips of Ms. Wood. So when a five DVD box set arrived in the post, I was delighted and plunged headlong into what I knew was going to be a wonderful few days spent with what seemed like an old friend.
Like BBC DVD’s 2010 boxset The Victoria Wood Collection, Wood Work compiles a wide range of Vic’s diverse creations from TV plays to stand-up shows and sketch comedy. Her unique flavour suffuses each creation but never overwhelms it as she delicately adapts to the requirements of each medium. Vic (as I will continue to call her throughout this reviews, for such is her effect on my life and sense of humour that surnames seem almost too formal) made an initial impact on the nation with her appearances on TV talent show New Faces and regular spots on consumer affairs show That’s Life! She followed this up with a popular stage play called Talent and it was this that lead to her first major TV project when head of drama at Granada TV Peter Eckersley saw the play and became Vic’s mentor, guiding her first tentative steps into her own TV shows.
The first disc in Wood Work was one of the great joys of the whole set for me, as it provided me with three TV plays by Vic, only one of which I’d heard of (the aforementioned Talent) and none of which I’d actually seen. TV plays are something I have always been fascinated by; cheap-looking but beautifully written hour long pieces in which the writer was the real star, in an era when both the craft of the writer and the intelligence of the audience was respected and encouraged. Vic’s three early entries into this glorious TV subgenre, for all their endearing uncertainty, stand up alongside some of the very best works by other great TV dramatists such as Dennis Potter, Alan Bleasdale and Alan Bennett. The TV version of Talent also marks the first televised pairing of Vic and her regular comic partner and friend Julie Walters, a collaboration that would bear abundant fruit over subsequent years. Walters plays Julie, a young mother who dreams of escaping the drudgery of office work by starting a singing career. The bottom rung of that intimidating ladder is Bunters nightclub, a grotty establishment which holds little promise in the way of stardom but does offer a few surprises in the shape of a former boyfriend, a couple of friendly vaudevillians and an aggressively oily compère. Vic co-stars as Julie’s frumpy friend Maureen, along for moral support, and while other actors offer strong support, it is very much this newly-established double act that hold the screen throughout.
The chemistry between the two leads in Talent is crucial, with Vic and Walters making Julie and Maureen instantly convincing as long-term friends. Their wandering conversation, particularly in the first act, is heavily evocative of Vic’s stand-up, with perfectly chosen banalities popping-up to puncture any glimpses of glamour. Vic was always a performer who knew the perfect moment to drop in the word ‘hermesetas!’ The conversation feels real and yet almost every line also feels like a punchline, an extremely difficult combination to pull off. And yet all the chuckles have an underlying sense of melancholy as the seedy side of showbusiness oozes from the patently artificial but effectively depressing backstage sets. Talent is also bolstered by a series of songs performed by its stars which give a glimpse beyond their everyday façades to the hopes, dreams and genuine emotions that lie beneath. Deliberately intrusive musical numbers had been used to devastating effect by Dennis Potter in the previous year’s Pennies from Heaven but Vic’s use of music in Talent is quite different. The element of performance compliments rather than disrupts the play’s themes and setting, while the lyrics are purpose-written in reference to the characters and events, rather than wryly co-opted from other sources.
The success of Talent lead to Vic writing a TV-only sequel called Nearly a Happy Ending in which she and Walters reprised their roles as Maureen and Julie. In this follow-up, Maureen takes centre stage as her significant weight-loss gives her the confidence to attempt to lose her virginity. Unfortunately, drawn like a magnet to the seedier side of life, the pair end up at a dismal saleman’s conference in a staid little hotel, where Maureen intimidates her chosen prey with her cold determination and Julie glimpses another shot at showbiz as a stand-up comedian’s sidekick. Nearly a Happy Ending opens out Julie and Maureen’s world a little and the script is still packed with laughs, particularly in the first act in which the characters are reintroduced and a slimmer’s club performs a congratulatory song and dance number loaded with cautionary cynicism. While this sequence is probably the play’s highlight, it is also the key to why Nearly a Happy Ending isn’t quite as successful as Talent. Despite the fact that the setting is no longer a club, Vic clings to the songs like a comfort blanket, inserting them into a scenario which no longer has the thematic relevance to support them. There’s still much to love here but it definitely feels like diminishing returns and, when not singing, Vic seems at times uncomfortable with the larger role she has written for her character this time round. Though she would quickly develop into a very fine actress indeed, she occasionally feels like a performer out of her depth here.
The same cannot be said of Walters, whose skill as an actress was apparent from the start and it was perhaps for this reason that for Vic’s third TV play, Happy Since I Met You, she removed herself from the cast and focused on Walters in the new role of Frances, a happily single teacher who falls in love with charming actor Jim but finds it hard to get used to not being alone any more. This brilliant piece examines relationships with an incisiveness for which Vic was becoming known, beautifully portraying the thrill of the first flush of love and then the difficulties of compromise that can follow. Happy Since I Met You is also Vic’s first collaboration with Duncan Preston, who would go on to become a regular cast member in her future productions. Usually playing a buffoonish or dowdy role, Preston does a great job here as the dashing heartthrob and his relationship with Walters’ character is entirely convincing and a joy to watch, even when it begins to sour.
WOOD AND WALTERS
The success of Vic’s screenplays lead to Eckersley offering her her own sketch show, the pilot for which was recorded between the latter two television plays. Vic, having only ever written one sketch previously, was apprehensive and agreed only on the understanding that she would share top billing with Julie Walters, an act of both nervous caution and characteristic professional generosity. The pilot for the series, though nominated for a BAFTA, feels like an unmitigated disaster in retrospect and Vic herself loathed the result. Heavily front-loaded with songs, which Vic still saw as her strength, the pilot feels jarring, lurching from a couple of weak sketches into a monologue that awkwardly morphs into another song. The double-act back and forth in front of the audience feels tired, like an attempt to hammer Vic’s sophisticated style into a pre-approved showbiz template. The tone is also ill-defined with the overbearing requirement for punchlines leading promising sketches down blind-alleys. One sketch, featuring Walters as an inexperienced hairdresser, ends with a joke so brutal that the result is shock rather than laughter. Unfortunately, the audience seem to agree and the bizarrely depressing experience of watching the dreadful pilot carries over into the marginally better series.
Vic blamed several factors for the little-known series’ failure, chief among them the tragic death of Eckersley after the pilot. Eckersley reportedly had lots of good ideas for the show but never told anyone what they were and Vic was not impressed with his replacement, Brian Armstrong, whom she felt hired unsuitable supporting players and lacked the encouraging approach that Eckersley had offered. Also cited as a problem was the audience, which had been populated with pensioners who were clearly not ready for Vic’s alternative approach. The laughter, when it comes, is generally muted and when it doesn’t come the silence is deafening. In particular, an admittedly one-joke feminist lecture by a young Rik Mayall dies an excruciating death. There are glimmers of promise, such as a very funny sketch in which Walters plays an interfering cleaning woman giving advice to Vic’s determined piano student, but on the whole it’s a struggle to get through the seven episodes of Wood and Walters and one sits down to watch more with splayed-fingers at the ready than an expectant funny bone. Fortunately, Vic did not abandon the idea of sketch comedy and, with her subsequent BBC series Victoria Wood As Seen on TV, she quickly nailed the medium. Wood and Walters is an at times fascinating dry-run for later success and its a worthwhile inclusion here for historical interest, although repeat viewings are unlikely.
AN AUDIENCE WITH VICTORIA WOOD
Although it has many tempting treats, the crown jewel of the Wood Work boxset is undoubtedly An Audience with Victoria Wood, a justly legendary stand-up show from 1988 which makes a convincing case for being the most perfect stand-up performance ever recorded. By the time of this famous show, Vic had visibly grown in confidence and the reticence visible in the earlier shows is absolutely nowhere to be found here. Performing to an audience of celebrities including French and Saunders, Rory Bremner, Maureen Lipman and, of course, Julie Walters, Vic begins by interacting with them in an obviously scripted but no-less-funny-for-it question and answer session. This was a staple of the An Audience With… series of which this was a part, in which a different celebrity would perform to a crowd of famous faces, which explains its slightly unsuitable insertion here but Vic uses the questions as a jumping off point to air some tremendous routines, in particular her piece about British responses to death. The show’s third act is given over to short character pieces in which Vic shows how much she had honed her acting skills to play the well-loved beret-wearing friend of ‘Kimb-er-lee’ and a clipboard-wielding high street survey lady.
An Audience with Victoria Wood is best remembered for its big finish, The Ballad of Barry and Freda, which remains one of the most perfect pieces of comedy ever performed. A high-energy dance number about a woman with a voracious and experimental sexual appetite and a man with a fearful and reluctant response to this, The Ballad of Barry and Freda hinges on Vic’s perfect choice of words, with Freda’s lewd suggestions gaining laughs not for their sexually-explicit nature but for their unexpected and ludicrous invention and the juxtaposition of the raunchy with the utterly sexless, with words like ‘smear’, ‘flame-proof’ and ‘hostess trolley’ triggering the laugh reflex before the full line is even out. This is a long, wordy composition and its success hinges on a flawless performance. One stumble over a word or ill-judged inflection could derail the head of steam it is so expertly designed to build up, but at no point does this seem like a risk. The audience’s trust in Vic is unerring and it seems impossible that she can put a foot wrong at this stage.
For years I thought The Ballad of Barry and Freda to be the highlight of An Audience with Victoria Wood but watching it now I actually think that the best part of the show is act 2, which features a long story about Vic’s attempts to escape from what she assumes to be a potential kidnapper. In the process of telling this lengthy, wandering tale, Vic manages to demonstrate every facet of her brilliant act, from straight stand-up through character comedy (the utterly wonderful ‘World of Sacherelle’ make-up demonstration), a musical interlude (the oft-overlooked Things Would Never Have Worked) and surreal observation (the details of a stage farce called ‘Whoops, There Go My Bloomers’). It’s all strung together so neatly but with such a sense of adventurous ambition that this 20 minute sequence could act as a concise CV for this multi-talented woman.
JULIE WALTERS AND FRIENDS
Listed as an extra on the Wood Work boxset but given a disc of its own, the 1991 one-off special Julie Walters and Friends is a show in which Walters performs sketches and monologues written by four writers who helped make her famous; Victoria Wood, Alan Bennett, Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell. Perhaps marginalised on Wood Work because it throws the spotlight on Walters and not Vic, Julie Walters and Friends is an absolute treat and a hidden gem which any fan of Vic’s will undoubtedly be delighted to find here. For one thing, although she allows her friend to take centre stage, Vic features prominently in both the writing stakes and in supporting roles. In fact, in the opening sketch in which the pair play little girls trying to get their heads round a naughty word game, Vic manages to walk away with most of the big laughs. Likewise, while barely saying a word, she causes consistent titters in her role as an elderly woman dancing with Walters’ compulsive liar of an old man, through her repetitive demure dance-steps. But overall this is emphatically Walters’ show and the witty styles of the four writers blend beautifully to create a sense of both variety and consistency. The monologues are perhaps the highlights, with Walters’ slow, subtle descent from serene relaxation guru into pill-popping wreck being a masterclass in the huge difference between coming up with an obvious comedic premise and actually selling it through writing and performance. We all know the tranquil Mary Brazzle is headed for a breakdown from the start but every moment of the six and a half minute journey is treasurable. Also notable is a duologue in verse regarding highbrow television and a return to the role of Mrs. Murray, who Walters played in Bleasdale’s G.B.H. This hour-long special is an absolute treat and demonstrates how effective intelligent, finally-honed character comedy can be if given the time it requires to play out. The inclusion of Julie Walters and Friends on Wood Work feels entirely fitting, given Vic’s longstanding support for her friend’s career and her willingness to step out of the spotlight.
The final disc in the Wood Work boxset features Vic’s double-BAFTA-winning 2006 TV movie Housewife, 49 which follows the experiences of Lancashire housewife Nella Last during the Second World War. Based on the real Last’s wartime diaries which she wrote for the Mass Observation project which recruited amateur observers to document their everyday lives, Housewife, 49 was written by and stars Vic in the central role. Over its 90 minutes runtime, the film intimately examines the effects of both the war and Nella’s personal relationships on her mental state. Beginning as a shrinking violet dominated by her emotionally-closed-off husband (a wonderful David Threlfall), Nella begins to flourish thanks to both her voluntary work and her outlet for her emotions through her Mass Observation writings. In contrast with the trio of screenplays on the first disc, Housewife, 49 showcases a writer completely confident with the dramatic form and Vic’s performance also shows how far she had come by this point. It’s hard to imagine anyone else having made such an effective job of the role. There are still moments of humour but Vic no longer sees the need to bombard the audience, instead giving the characters and events more room to breathe. One notable dramatic moment also shows how she has learned to reverse her trademark trick of undermining a serious subject with a comically trivial detail. A line about tinned pears is followed immediately by a heartfelt and unexpected romantic declaration that changes the tone instantly. It’s a moment that is indicative of how Vic has grown as a writer, applying lessons learned to build upon her strengths. A high quality, emotionally gripping drama, Housewife, 49 is a quiet triumph.
Although all five of its discs have been available as separate releases previously, Wood Work compiles a good chunk of Vic’s output in one superb package. Although Wood and Walters is a disappointment, all four of the other inclusions are essential, from the highpoint of An Audience with Victoria Wood through the impressive dramatic pieces and the fabulous Julie Walters and Friends, Wood Work comes highly recommended for anyone looking to speedily enhance their collection of works by one of the most talented and unpredictable comedians, actors and writers ever.
Victoria Wood: Wood Work, A Celebration was released by Network on DVD on 22 August 2016. Extras are thin on the ground, although the An Audience with Victoria Wood DVD includes a nice batch of archive interviews from the 80s and 90s.