ETCETERA / How We Met: 66. Julie Walters and Victoria Wood

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The Independent Culture
Writer and comedienne Victoria Wood (39) grew up in Lancashire and went to Birmingham University. Her first play, Talent, premiered at the Crucible Theatre Studio, Sheffield in 1978. She appeared in the TV adaptation with Julie Walters (42) who went on to star in the award-winning film Educating Rita. The two have also worked together on the comedy series Wood and Walters and Victoria Wood - As Seen On TV. Wood lives in London with her husband, Geoffrey Durham, and their two two children. Walters lives in Surrey with her boyfriend, Grant, and their daughter.

VICTORIA WOOD: It was in the Spring of 1971, at Manchester Poly's student theatre. I was 17 and was auditioning to go there the following year. I was so nervous I didn't notice anybody or anything, but towards the end of the day I looked up and Julie was talking about when she used to be a nurse and doing an impression of one wheeling a commode down a ward. I thought she was quite extraordinary. She had loads of dark brown hair and lots of eye make up. I'd never seen anybody show off that blatantly.

I didn't know her name, but I did think about her on and off through the years that followed, and used to wonder if I'd ever see her in anything.

Then, in the summer of 1978, I was approached by Dusty Hughes, who ran the Bush Theatre, to take part in a revue he was putting together about death. Everybody involved was having a meeting at the house of Snoo Wilson, the playwright. There were all these terrible, pretentious people whom I immediately took a dislike to. Julie was there too: I didn't remember her, but I liked her a lot. Then about a week later, we were just standing talking in a pub, and Julie said she was at Manchester Poly. Then I remembered, 'Of course, it's her.' I always thought she would go places.

When we used to do series together and were staying in hotels, I'd see more of her. We'd get drunk in the evenings. There was the night we were staying at the Midland Hotel in Manchester. I think a bit of drinking had gone on and she was kipping in my room. We were dead asleep and a fire alarm went off. It went on for ages, and we were dashing about putting on bras and contact lenses and didn't have time to get our shoes on. We were right at the top of the hotel and ran down, a bit dazed, and out into the street, to find it was broad daylight and they were testing the fire bells.

People used to expect competitiveness between us, especially when she had that huge break with Educating Rita and went into a totally different world of being a film star. I was just starting to go out on the road and build my reputation as a solo comedian. The press would hark on about her, as if I'd somehow been left behind, and that used to annoy me because it wasn't the case.

Our working relationship has always been very, very easy. I know I can write anything and she'll be able to do it. Or I can say to her: 'You remember that woman we once saw, who talked like that?' And she goes: 'Oh yes.' We have quite a good 'shorthand' like that.

She's also really kind and generous. You know, you could phone her up and say you'd murdered somebody and she'd go 'Oh yeah? I used to murder people.' And everything is very out in the open with Julie. Her daughter's got leukaemia, but she doesn't hide it. Last week, we sat down together in the BBC canteen and we dealt with death and bereavement - we'd gone through the whole thing by the time we'd had our tea.

She's very enthusiastic - which is not a common quality, especially as people get older. She's hugely good company. Everybody is drawn to her. She's like that half the time. Other times, she's like a slug that's been run over by a lorry: absolutely comatose. You get one or the other.

She's helped me find that key that I was looking for, for my own 'voice'. Up until that year - 1978 - I'd not found what I wanted to say or how I wanted to say it. That summer I wrote my first proper sketch, with jokes and a punchline, and she was in it. I'd been struggling towards something, but I knew things weren't quite right, that singing songs at the piano wasn't it. Then, when we stood on stage doing that sketch - and we both loved doing it - it gave me such a boost. You think: 'Ah, now I know - now I know what I'm doing.' And I've never stopped working since.

JULIE WALTERS: We met in 1978 at the Bush Theatre in a sort of revue, In At The Death. Vic wrote a really funny sketch for it and I had the other part in it with her. We got on really well, and one day we were out having lunch in this old cafe opposte, the Cafe Rest, and she said: 'We've met before - at Manchester Poly.' She told me that in 1971 I was a first-year student there and she'd come to audition - then it all came back in a rush. I remembered this little girl being sick and being terribly nervous. I was showing off in my leotard, regaling them with awful stories, I expect. I remember showing off and feeling in a position of superiority.

I felt a kindred spirit when I met her. You know how you meet some people and feel you've known them? I was drawn towards her . . . and she just made me laugh. We found the same things funny.

Talent came out of the revue at the Bush Theatres. We were doing the show and David Leland, the director, who used to run the Young Writers' Festival up in Sheffield, came to see it and asked Victoria if she'd write something for the festival. And she said to me: 'I'll write something for you.' I didn't think that she would, but she did. It was a wonderful part and very much about us, I felt.

Then Peter Eckersley, a wonderful producer - now, sadly, dead - from Granada saw the play and said: 'Oh, we've got to do this on television', and so I had to audition. Vic said: 'Don't worry, I'll play bum notes for everybody else.' I went up and sang for it, and I got it. This was the first telly we did. When we first started filming, we were standing in the street waiting to shoot - it was an outside scene - and some students from the Poly were saying: 'What is it?' One of them said: 'Oh, I don't know. Some film about two middle-aged women.' I was only 28, she was about 25.

I never think of us as 'working together'. I always think of it as Vic giving me these gifts of parts, because she knows me. When we were doing Wood and Walters, there were one or two people at Granada who we found funny and I used to do impersonations of them - we both did. There was a woman who worked up there who we found very funny and I used to spend all my time talking like her. So many characters have been based on her since.

Vic has an amazing strength, an amazing focus. I'm terribly unfocused and then I do the acting at the cost of everything else. If I'm wobbly with lines, they go, because my concentration goes. Her concentration will take her through to the end. I feel she's got hold of the reins of life. I'm usually thinking: 'Where the bloody hell are they? Help. I'm falling off. My saddle's on back to front.' I'm sure Vic's capable of confusion as well, but basically she has a great strength.

In some ways, knowing Vic has made more difference to my career than Educating Rita. Eucating Rita did put me into the international film world, but I'm not somebody who's interested in making it in Hollywood. Whereas all the series that I've done with Vic have been terribly important. I feel that that's what has given me my 'standing' here. -

(Photographs omitted)