TELEVISION:Victoria Wood: as not seen on TV

Despite Bafta awards and sell-out tours, Victoria Wood remains The Person You'd Most Like To Live Next Door To. James Rampton met her
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The Independent Culture
VICTORIA WOOD's fans don't send her passionate love letters; they send her woolly jumpers. "I've got an endless stream of knitwear coming through the post," she sighs. This is typical: Dame Edna Everage may have coined the phrase, but surely Victoria Wood is the ultimate housewife superstar. She's just the same as us, people say - except that she gets up on stage and talks about it. She too is worried about the babysitter, worn-out by the energy of her step-class teacher, and wondering how mail- order catalogues always manage to sell you things you don't need.

"She's one of us - whoever the `us' is," says Ruth Caleb, who produced Wood's Screen One film, Pat and Margaret, which was repeated last Sunday. "She connects with real people, and her humour is fed by real people. She has an honesty and a lack of superiority."

It's true that as she sits sipping mineral water in the atrium of a posh London hotel - all palm-trees and smartly liveried porters - Wood doesn't stand out from the crowd. Wearing almost imperceptible make-up, a neat blonde bob, a stripy grey jersey (I forgot to ask if it had been sent by a fan) and knee-length black skirt, she has the look of Joanna Public. Not a manicurist or an aromatherapist in sight. Her voice is so soft it is almost drowned out by the bar pianist tinkling in the background.

From this inconspicuous position, Wood is able to observe life going on around her and put it through her "barmy filter" to create such memorable characters as the gawky teen- ager Kimberly in her stand-up act - or Margaret Motteshead, the drippy motorway-service-station chip-fryer from Pat and Margaret. According to Geoff Posner, who produced and directed her three-times-Bafta-award- winning series, Victoria Wood - As Seen on TV, "she manages to examine people talking and capture speech-patterns and subjects that are everyday, but hysterical at the same time".

She's not just a gag merchant, though. Like all the best writers, Wood mixes emotion in with the laughter - think of the tragic look on Margaret's face as she realises she is being spurned by her long-lost sister in Pat and Margaret. "She writes with an enormous amount of compassion," observes Posner. "I particularly remember one sketch about a cross-Channel swimmer with uninterested parents. They didn't come to see her swim the Channel because they were busy seeing an Andrew Lloyd Webber."

Wood is also low-key in her private life; you're unlikely to see much of her in the columns of Nigel Dempster, or at film-premiere parties at Planet Hollywood. She is famously devoted to her family: husband Geoffrey Durham, the magician, and children Grace and Henry. She took the one-year- old Henry on tour with her in 1993. On this year's national tour, she is driving back from any venue "less than two and a half hours" from her north-London home to be there for the children in the morning. She says she doesn't get to see much comedy on television these days because "I can't get my children to bed in time". Perhaps it is this background that helps her stay so winningly down-to-earth.

Geoff Posner pinpoints the skill with which she heightens the humdrum: "Victoria lifts up the stone and examines what's underneath. In part of her stand-up show, she talks about how you develop piles when you have a baby. It's something that everybody knows happens, but nobody talks about.

"She always manages to be extraordinarily ordinary," he continues. "She'll never just talk about a biscuit; she'll talk about a Rich Tea. A generic name will never do where there's a specific, and with the specific comes a whole lot of associations. The audience nods the whole time. It's quite unique to hold a mirror up to ordinary life and make it so special."

Wood's appeal certainly spans all age groups. She acknowledges the breadth of her audience, and claims, "I don't pitch it at anyone in particular. If I'd ever heard Blur, I could make jokes about them. But I'm getting like a High Court judge as I grow older: `Boy George? Who's that?' "

The fans, like their idol, are impossibly nice; the worst heckle she can remember is "I thought you were taller". They distribute the Acorn Antiques newsletter (named after the spoof soap in As Seen on TV), and have meetings where they recite Wood's sketches verbatim and speak to each other as Mrs Overall (the senile cleaner played by Julie Walters in Acorn Antiques).

Not everyone is a Wood worshipper, however. She has been criticised for not being political enough, but claims not to be interested in "biting political satire". Also, she says, "I do get called `cosy', which I'm not very keen on. That word `family' gets used. I suppose it's because I'm a mother and because I don't say `fuck' every other second or talk about farting the entire time. Perhaps I'm turning into the Queen Mother."

On her last tour, she sold out a record-breaking 15 nights at the Albert Hall. But she nearly didn't make it as a performer at all. Having been bitten by the showbiz bug as a 15-year-old at Rochdale Youth Theatre (her first part was a prototype Mrs Overall, a comic charlady with false breasts and football boots), she applied to sev- eral drama schools on leaving Bury Girls' Grammar. They all turned her down. Wood recalls that "one of them said I had a deformed jaw which is not the most supportive thing to say to a 17-year-old".

Wood is still shy and uses self- deprecation as a weapon in her comic armoury. A classic line from As Seen on TV is the excruciatingly diffident: "But anyway ... you see." The poster for the forthcoming tour pictures her with her nose buried in her jumper. "I'm working on not being self-deprecating," she moans. "But it's a British thing, I was born with it. I couldn't come on stage and tell them how marvellous I am. It's much more like, `I had come here to entertain you, but I can see you're busy so I won't detain you for any longer than is necessary'."

Unlike certain female comics, she is unthreatening - "sanitary towels are a very minimal part of what I do" - and does not see herself as a feminist flag-waver. "If people want to be comedians," she comments, "there's nothing stopping them - except lack of drive or talent."

She finally got into Birmingham University to read drama. While still a student, she started playing comic songs in pubs and clubs, where she was talent-spotted by local television at BBC Pebble Mill. Just after graduating in 1974, she won New Faces and the princely sum of pounds 75.

After stints as a comic turn on That's Life and Start the Week, her big break came in 1978 when she was seen in a touring comedy revue called Funny Turns and asked by Dusty Hughes to write songs for In at the Death, a sketch show about mortality, at the Bush Theatre in London. Having penned numbers about joyriders and Guy the Gorilla, she remembers, "I couldn't find any more deaths to write songs about. So I asked if I could write a sketch instead, and because it was about sex and everything else was about death, it got a huge laugh. It was the first thing I'd written with proper jokes and I thought, `aha'. I'd suddenly found something I could do. It was a blinding flash, like learning a new language." She hasn't been out of work since.

Wood went on to write two stage plays (Talent and Good Fun) and two television plays (Nearly a Happy Ending and Happy Since I Met You), before teaming up with Julie Walters, whom she met on In at the Death, for a series of Wood and Walters for Granada in 1981. In the 15 years since, she has interspersed ever-bigger stand-up tours with such acclaimed television programmes as Victoria Wood - As Seen on TV, An Audience with Victoria Wood, Victoria Wood's All-Day Breakfast and Pat and Margaret.

Now 43, she shows no sign of slowing down. She is appearing as the Tea- Lady in Terry Jones's film version of The Wind in the Willows and is undertaking one of the BBC's Great Railway Journeys - around Britain, of course. And she's not short of offers: Posner admits that "there are a lot of TV executives - myself included - going around on their knees asking her to do stuff". All she will say is that after the tour she has a stage play and a sitcom in the pipeline. "Everything takes such a long time," she laments. "I wish there was more of me. Perhaps I should franchise myself. Like the Body Shop."

But, for the moment at least, there's only one Victoria Wood. "People see something in me," she reflects. "My husband says it's because `people think you're nice'. I once won a poll of People You'd Most Like To Live Next Door To. That gave them a laugh at home, I can tell you. The Queen Mother came second to me. I should imagine she was very annoyed."

! Victoria Wood's national tour opens at De Montfort Hall, Leicester (0116 233 3111), on 3 May.