Television: Our lady of the bap and tea towel

James Rampton watches Victoria Wood's new comedy and asks: what's the point of sitcoms?

When she was researching her new BBC1 sitcom, Dinnerladies, Victoria Wood went to visit a Manchester factory-canteen. At one point she asked the manager if the canteen provided a vegetarian option. "You're joking," he replied. "People question your sexuality if you have cornflakes." Wood wasn't able to shoehorn the line into her series, but Dinnerladies still resonates with cafeteria humour. Wood's trademark as a writer is the glint of the extraordinary in the ordinary. Like Alan Bennett, she mines a seam of heightened plain speech.

This is one of her five dinner ladies, Jean (played by Anne Reid), recalling a recent wedding: "Auntie Dot from Cockermouth ate a raffia drinks coaster. Thought it was a high-fibre biscuit. She had to be held back from moving down the table and buttering two more."

Bennett might have avoided the third bite at the same joke. But Wood's approach plays to all the strengths of the sitcom, a widely-watched if rarely admired form. She uses language with relish, yet can make her points concisely. Oh yes, and she's funny - something you can't say about most sitcom-writers. All of which makes Dinnerladies the most satisfying new sitcom of the year (with The Royle Family a close second).

For all that, the overall reputation of the genre rests somewhere down near General Pinochet's. The viewing figures are unequivocal: people love watching sitcoms. But we are also quick to slag them off. It's a national sport. In embarking on her first ever sitcom, wasn't Wood in danger of guilt by association? "I was worried about being tarred with that brush," she concedes. "Sitcom is such a horrible phrase now. It's almost synonymous with crap. But that's not my fault. One of my whinges is: why aren't there more good sitcoms? Often writers are constructing a group of people who don't have any reality. They're writing without passion. They think, 'Oh, we've got half an hour empty, let's bung together some people in an office or on a sofa.' Those shows never say anything. You have to really want to write a sitcom and have something to say that can only be said in that form."

So just what is Wood trying to say with Dinnerladies? "I wanted to introduce some new people into television. Good sitcoms, like Absolutely Fabulous or The Royle Family, show you a world that you didn't previously know existed."

It is true that, outside the world of soaps, women of a certain age are usually a blind spot for channel controllers. Dinnerladies - highlighting the casual profundity that often courses through banal-sounding female conversations - goes some way towards taking off their blinkers. Indeed, Dinnerladies is notable for being as much tragicomedy as sitcom. Wood cleverly peels back these women's lives and allows us a peek at the darkness visible within them. Jean's husband, we learn, "has given up in the duvet department," while Anita (Shobna Gulati) runs from the room weeping at the very mention of the word "babies".

Wood argues that pathos is an important aspect of comedy. "It just removes it from Sitcomland and roots it in a world I know. Most interesting things - whether they're drama or comedy - contain both elements. The best drama has always got funny bits in it, and the best sitcoms have a truth and, if not pathos, then something underneath that isn't just happy and jolly. Otherwise, it's meaningless, a fantasy. I can't watch farce because I can't believe anyone would behave like that. But if you look at something like Dad's Army, it's plausible. You know that Captain Mainwaring is jealous of Sergeant Wilson because Wilson is posher."

Mention of Dad's Army, perhaps the most celebrated Britcom, prompts the question: is there a magic formula? Wood reckons not. In this she echoes Dennis Main Wilson, the legendary producer of The Goon Show and Till Death Us Do Part, who once declared: "the basic rule of comedy is that there are no rules." Rather prosaically, Wood ascribes the success of a sitcom to hard work. She laboured for more than a year on the six half-hours of Dinnerladies, jettisoning three entire episodes and often working through the night on re-writes. She found the discipline so tough that she now admits she almost quit after four months.

A constant refrain - chorused in pontificators' columns - is that "they don't make sitcoms like they used to." Wood wishes to kill off that canard. "It's not any worse now. There have always been a whole load of diabolical sitcoms. We only remember the good ones. If you looked at the Radio Times from twenty years ago, you'd see a lot of horrors with John Alderton and Hannah Gordon and various people we've consigned to the waste bin of memory."

Like another great British comic tradition, the panto, the sitcom depends on easily identifiable figures whom we can drop in on unannounced at any moment and still recognise. They are often defined by a catchphrase such as "don't panic" or "stupid boy". We revel in that safe, snug feeling of familiarity - what else can explain the fact that Last of the Summer Wine is the world's longest-running sitcom?

Dinnerladies fits into that pattern; the strength of Wood's characters is that within the first five minutes we feel we know them. We've all met a Stan (Duncan Preston), the terminally dull handyman. "You can't shock me," he boasts. "I was once employed in the biggest brothel in Haslingden". "Doing what?" asks Bren (Wood). "Rewiring".

Equally, everyone is acquainted with a Tony (Andrew Dunn), the larky, laddish manager who sees innuendo in everything and has a soft spot for Bren. Wood characterises Bren and Tony's would-be romance as "very half- hearted, blundering, hopeless and British" - a neat summary of all her characters.

But how does Wood, a TV star of some 25 years' standing, remain tuned- in to the idiosyncrasies of people from whom she is now far-removed? "I pay little people to come round to my house and tell me about their lives," she laughs. "I talk like that myself, and I keep my ears open. I want my characters to sound realistic and not talk in, inverted-commas, jokey dialogue. I'm a lower middle-class person. I haven't altered my attitude - I've just added a few cars and houses. Alan Bennett has lived in Regents Park for 30 years, and he can still do it."

In Best of British, the BBC1 profile of Wood broadcast last week, Clive James remarked that "she's the woman you'd least like to have behind you in the queue in the supermarket when you're checking out because she'd be noticing everything in your shopping-trolley and reading your character from it."

Despite - or perhaps because of - her success, Wood has had her critics. "Journalists accuse me of being cosy," she says, "but I'm not worried about labels. It's something to do with being northern and having big bosoms. There's this association with baps and tea towels. But I don't just talk about gypsy creams. Someone said to me, 'well, you're not very political' - and that was supposed to be a criticism. But it was a compliment as far as I was concerned. Political comedy was just a fashion."

Wood's one concern is that she may be overdue for a backlash with this new venture. "It would worry me if the critics just decided it was my turn to get chopped, she said. "After all, I'm not setting myself up as the saviour of the sitcom. I just wrote it as a way of getting out of the house."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie