Crushing put-downs and tangential cruelties

What do Victoria Wood and Dame Edna Everage have in common? Well, they're both funny, and they're both better on video because you can fast-forward through the songs. But that apart, I suspect you would be pressed to construct a very sturdy compar ison, even when common sense is sleeping it off somewhere, exhausted by too many jingling, bauble-decked, tinsel-swagged inanities. (Christmas I like, really, but Christmas on television can be a fierce affliction to the spirit.)

Actually, there is another connection between the two: neither Dame Edna's Hollywood (ITV) nor Victoria Wood: Live in Your Home (BBC 1) made much concession to seasonal trimmings. Victoria Wood was backed by something that looked as if it had been borrowed from an upmarket advertising agency, all brushed steel and earth tones, while Dame Edna was in her Beverly Hills home, a hacienda-style torture chamber for the egos of the rich and famous.

This remains true - despite the fact that everyone is now in on the gag - because you still can't be sure when she'll veer off on some tangential cruelty. The shows themselves are getting more formal in their methods, from those mischievous name-badges to the guests' complicity with the pantomime of stardom. But every now and then it is still possible to see a little flare of uncertainty on a guest's face, an H M Bateman response to the fact that someone has had the audacity to say something during a talk-show. You could see Sean Young didn't quite know what to do when she was stopped in the middle of an unusually dull anecdote, that staple of the guest couch. "What trivial things we remember," interrupted Dame Edna, in those f amiliar tones of crushing wonder.

Barry Manilow later had to cope with his hostess's maternal feelings towards him, which involved the desire to pick him up by his little ankles and dust his bottom with talcum powder ("to me, it's a wholesome fantasy, Barry").

She seems more liable to rope the guests into scripted exchanges than she used to be, though this may be a curiously double-edged tribute to the sort of shows she pastiches. It doesn't matter, anyway, as long as the jokes are good ones: "Bing Crosby could play my husband," she said while discussing a musical autobiography with Barry Manilow. "But he's not alive," said Barry tentatively. "Neither is my husband," replied Edna.

Victoria Wood offers a different sort of explicitness, one that won't have any truck with innuendo or delirious euphemism. While Dame Edna steps carefully round her husband's "first urological explosion", Wood just gets straight down to explaining how a haemorrhoid had popped out during her last labour ("I phoned me mum. Knit two hats").

For Dame Edna, the particularities of the world, devices and trade names, tremble with sexual potential (Sean Young was described as waiting outside, "finger toying with my entry button"), but for Wood they're just a way of nailing her comedy right down to the real world (she described Norma Major as "the sort of woman who has a separate J-cloth for each tap"). Her scorn is reserved for those who imagine they are detached from such details: "Never mind the balance of trade figures," she said

, describing the appearance of male MPs, "some Head and Shoulders wouldn't go amiss."

This is a rather heartening comedy, one of general enlistment, even at points when exclusions might be easier. Half the audience wouldn't know what it's like to have a midwife hold a mirror so that you can see your baby's head beginning to appear. But wewere instantly included by Wood's analogy - that pointless barber's ritual of showing you the back of your head when it's too late for your comments to matter.


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