Victoria Wood: The first lady of suburbia

Victoria Wood's sharp eye for life's absurdities has helped her pack out the Royal Albert Hall night after night. But, she tells Rachel Halliburton, the King's Head Theatre remains her first love
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The Independent Culture

Having a hysterectomy proved an unexpected gift to Victoria Wood. The ordeal of hormonal ups and downs, intrusive gynaecological examinations, and sterilised surgical probings all proved a rich source of inspiration for her latest and final stand-up show, At It Again. In her routine she describes a consultant who walked into her hospital room with a crowd of students, and plunged his arm inside her with the directness a vet normally reserves for a cow. "I said, 'Look, I don't expect you to take me out to dinner first, but hello would be nice'."

It is, Wood reveals with some pride, "a filthy show, very surgical. It proves there's nothing you can't say if you say it in the right way". And hysterectomy does seem the perfect subject matter for a comedian who has etched her reputation around the insecurities, anxieties and ridiculous pressures faced by women, whether she is describing the librarian reduced to blind-dating a mechanical engineer with a charisma bypass and Hush Puppies, or the girl caught short on a country ramble without enough chocolate to power her across the landscape. She would not, you feel, describe herself as a feminist – Wood would be less interested in burning a bra than making fun of the thermal underwear section in the catalogue it came from. She maintains a quiet Northern determination to avoid ponceyness in any form – a woman who might well call a tea cosy a tea cosy, her piercingly observed comic domain is stubbornly suburban.

We meet at the King's Head Theatre in Islington, north London where Wood first appeared 22 years ago. She sits hugging a corner of the table in the part of the auditorium where people can eat dinner before being entertained by the latest on the theatre's eclectic dramatic menu. Up close, there is something almost doll-like about her with her page-boy haircut, eyes-wide-as-saucers, and her Lancashire voice that seems as homely as a cup of Red Label and a plate of Jammy Dodgers. Yet the deceptively mumsy friendliness that forms an essential part of her comic persona is not there: the eye contact is flickering, the answers initially flurried and perfunctory, and the body-language has "keep out" signs hung all over it.

It is perhaps not surprising that despite more than two decades of being a household name, Wood is no fan of the interviewing game. After all, if you can see infinite comic potential in a grain of suburbia, then the journalistic interview – with its fake intimacy, contrived conversation, and overtones of self-promotion – contains its own generous share of absurdities.

Throughout the interview, Wood talks a lot about having grown in confidence: she is "happy" with who she is, unlike the younger Wood who "spent time as a teenager getting hold of rolls of fat and looking in the mirror and just despising myself". Yet journalists still seem to be viewed the way an ant eyes up a can of insecticide – even though as a performer who can fill the Royal Albert Hall effortlessly night after night, she has soared into a stratosphere beyond the constraints of media approval or disapproval.

So why is Wood subjecting herself to this charade? The reason – that she will shortly be putting on a benefit gig at the Royal Albert Hall for the significantly smaller King's Head, which to all who know and love it seems permanently on the brink of financial expiry.

"It's a lot nicer than when I was performing here," she declares looking round at the recently renovated dining area, with padded benches that are decidedly more bottom-friendly than the rickety constructions that preceded them. "I've seen it in a shocking state, although sometimes it's had a cash boost, which has meant that it's been given a new lick of paint, or someone's taken a J-Cloth to the tables. It's such an Ealing comedy sort of place, with that sense of battling against the odds. I love the fact that it isn't perfectly designed – there's that feeling that you have to climb over the roof if you want to come on stage from a different angle."

She is right that the King's Head's creaky eccentricities make it the kind of place where the late Alastair Sim might be lurking at the bar, or a young Alec Guinness could stagger out of one of the dressing rooms. Before its renovations last year, regular audience-goers were used to the fact that the leaky roof would not always keep rain out of the auditorium, and that the lack of air conditioning could speedily turn summer productions into saunas.

In its time, the room where the theatre is now has been a boxing-ring and a pool-hall, while the bar boasts a magnificent Victorian cash register that even now still deals in pounds and shillings.

It was Dan Crawford, an American, who transformed it into a theatre in the mid-Seventies – and now the venue hosts productions ranging in style from the somewhat dubious Whoop-de-Doo starring Christopher Biggins to plays by Anouilh, Berkoff, Fugard, Coward, and new works destined for West-End transfer.

"I don't particularly romanticise tattiness, because when you're at the edge of it, it's depressing to be next to a toilet that smells," Wood asserts. "Here people put up with the uncomfortable chairs and having people eating dinner behind their left ear because there's a good feel. I think it's important just to have a bolshy little corner of theatre that isn't the National, isn't the RSC. I think you have to celebrate individuality."

Wood is true to her word. Later in the year she will also be doing a fund-raising gig for the Bush theatre, where she famously teamed up with Julie Walters. Now, through shows such as Wood and Walters, Victoria Wood as seen on TVand Dinnerladies, television has ensured that her world has filtered into the nation's consciousness, whether it is satirising aspects of the women's self-help industry, discussing sex woman's weekly style, sending up soap-opera or relishing the comic potential of words and phrases such as candlewick, carpet-rod, fruit-and-nut, or gingham wrap-around. However, she has strong memories of the days before she achieved national fame, when appearing in fringe venues was fraught with terrors.

"When I was working with my husband (Geoffrey Durham, The Great Soprendo), I used to dread something going wrong with his show," she says. "Not that it ever did. But I used to sit in the toilet and flush it so I couldn't hear the audience."

The world of comedy has radically transformed itself since Wood's days at the King's Head, yet there is little sense that she has lost out from resisting the post-modern trendier-than-thou approach to making people laugh. While some might dismiss her as mumsy, there is no denying the achievement of a woman who is a sell-out stand-up success at 49, at a time when younger women are struggling to assert themselves on the stand-up circuit.

"I don't try and aim myself at anything," she declares, "I'm just Typical – the kind of person who reads Hello! magazine and laughs at it at the same time."

I ask if she will ever return to perform at the King's Head. "Oh no," she laughs. "I don't think I could do it now. The audience is too close."

The King's Head Theatre Gala at the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday 14 April (020-7589 8212)

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