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Goodbye to Victoria Wood

She was one of the cleverest comedians ever to appear on British television. But she was also one of the kindest. Now Victoria Wood has gone at the early age of sixty-two, leaving behind a host of happy memories and many hours of comedy that appealed to millions but could only have been written by a woman in a million.

Like many comedians, her quest for laughter ran alongside her quest for happiness and her struggle with personal demons. She was born in Prestwich, Lancashire, daughter of a depressive mother and a distant, workaholic father. She went to school in Bury, but had a lonely childhood, struggling with her weight and with an eating disorder. There was light amid the gloom, however: she was given a piano for her fifteenth birthday and began to polish her musical talents and performance skills. She had seen a route out of her unhappiness: the stage.

Pursuing her dreams of stardom, she joined the Rochdale Youth Theatre Workshop and began to make a mark as a comic and writer. She would say later that her isolation had allowed her to observe people and their behaviour more deeply. She could see the absurdity of life, but also its sadness, and her comedy was never cruel, jeering or unkind. After Rochdale, she went to study drama at the University of Birmingham. Before her student days were over she began her rise to national fame, appearing on ITV talent-quest New Faces in 1974.

But she did more than appear: she won the show. The world of comedy was then dominated by larger-than-life men whose jokes often relied on heavy-handed innuendo and stereotypes. Victoria Wood’s writing was something new: quirky, subtle and sympathetic to its characters even as it found the funny side in their lives. It was perfectly suited to the talents of an upcoming actress called Julie Walters – the two women had first met in the early 1970s and after Wood’s appearance on New Faces they formed one of the most fruitful partnerships in the history of British television.

Wood continued to write for ITV and to appear on television as both an actress and stand-up comedian, but her final big step to stardom came when she moved to the BBC in 1984 for her own sketch-show, Victoria Wood as Seen on TV. She was able to choose her own cast and Julie Walters was joined by their shared friends Celia Imrie and Duncan Preston. The threesome were a perfect ensemble for the comedy Wood was writing, particularly in the spoof soap-opera Acorn Antiques, based on the long-running series Crossroads. Acorn Antiques gleefully used every bad plot device, cliché and dodgy acting technique in the book. The sets wobbled, the cameras had the wrong angles, the actors over-emoted, forgot their lines and fell over the props.

As Seen on TV also saw the first performance of “The Ballad of Barry and Freda (Let’s Do It)”, the most famous song in Wood’s musical repertoire. It told of an amorous woman pursuing a reluctant man with a series of ever-more bizarre suggestions, which he counters with increasingly desperate excuses. The song was quintessential Wood: highly intelligent, endlessly inventive but affectionate. There was another series of As Seen on TV in 1986, then she moved away from sketches and wrote longer pieces for a series entitled simply Victoria Wood in 1989. Her success continued unslackened in the 1990s and towards the end of the decade she had another big hit with Dinnerladies, a bitter-sweet comedy starring her long-established team of female performers.

At the turn of the millennium Victoria Wood was one of the most popular and widely respected names in British entertainment. She had surpassed all the ambitions she had nurtured as an overweight and lonely schoolgirl, turning sadness into laughter and blazing a trail for other female writers and performers. Although she was adored by the general public and honoured by her fellow professionals, she never sought attention off-screen and off-stage, preferring to keep her private life out of the headlines. News of her early death has come as a shock to millions, because she had not publicized her cancer or sought sympathy for it. Victoria Wood has left us far too soon, with so much still to give, but recordings of her work will continue to inspire and entertain old and new fans long into the future.