It is one of those days that it is odd to be an Englishman away from England.
Victoria Wood has died, and my New York colleagues can’t quite share my shock and sadness. Wood is one of the funniest comics from my homeland, so witty, so sharp, and a trailblazer for women in comedy.
If you had paid that last compliment to her, she would have had a fast retort ready, probably about something fire-retardant.
She had, after all, in the marvelous “The Ballad of Barry and Freda (Let’s Do It)” raised the possibility of passionate sex melting buttons on a “flameproof nightie.”
But if you’re an American who likes comedy and you don’t know her, my goodness, at least YouTube offers you the chance to fall in love with Victoria Wood—too late, far too late, but still. In her, and now too late, you will see the same fearless, candid comedy that is performed by Amy Schumer and Tina Fey.
As the author Caitlin Moran tweeted:
Wood died far too young. She was 62 and had endured “a short but brave battle with cancer,” according to her agent.
The tributes from the public, fellow comics, and even the prime minister have been rightly effusive: Wood was much loved and cherished.
It was her sketch comedy that first brought her fame, this done alongside the actress Julie Walters as Wood and Walters. They would play characters in cafes and shops and offices, gossiping, wondering about life, restless, rationalizing absurdities, and bloody funny.
Then, stardom hers, came her own piloted shows: the always hilarious Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV. A sitcom set in a canteen, Dinnerladies, followed. Later, there were serious acting roles, in Pat and Margaret, a drama about two sisters (one played by Wood, the other Walters): one famous, the other not, and the ties that bound them despite the material and cultural distance that separated them. There was the wartime-set Housewife 49. Wood filled London’s Royal Albert Hall for 15 consecutive nights with her stand-up show.
Wood is most associated with the BBC, even though the relationship soured later. In 2009 Wood was reportedly angry at the corporation for moving her Christmas special from Christmas Day itself.
A year later, Wood recounted to the Guardian, how she told off the BBC’s executives, “What’s your qualification for telling me what’s funny? Please don’t tell me what’s funny, cos I know what’s funny. And you probably don’t. That’s why I’m on television and you’re not.”
A changing BBC, a younger audience for comedy—it seems ridiculous that either of these things (or others) should have counted against Victoria Wood, because her comedy transcends time and generations: The young and old of families loved her. Her audiences were gay, straight, male, female, married, single—all weeping with laughter at her battery of jokes and set-ups. She never had to move with the times. Her brilliance and talent had nothing to do with comedic trends.
The Victoria Wood joke or character is not distinguished by age or even gender—she wrote as brilliantly for men as she did for women, and wrote for Julie Walters and her own self best of all—but by an ear and voice for the specific and everyday.
What made Victoria Wood so special? Her ear and the writing that flowed from it. She had an understanding—both a sympathy and a savagely satirical bent—of daily life, and somehow in the drudgery of marriage, the most ordinary notes of ordinary lives, the most mundane of the mundane, she found the sparkling wit and punchline (after punchline).
This humor wasn’t as safe as its warm-toned delivery sometimes portended. It tells you everything you need to know about Victoria Wood that, on being told by my former London Times colleague Carol Midgley, in a wonderful interview, that the British public had voted her the person they most wanted to live next door to, with the Queen Mother coming second, Wood replied, deadpan: “Yes, I think that’s what killed her. The disappointment.”
America may be coming to Victoria Wood too late, but that is no excuse for not partaking in the joy she brings—present tense deliberate. Every fan has been swapping their favorite Victoria Wood sketches all day, and so…enough of my panegyric, here is mine: Acorn Antiques, Wood’s parody of a creaking, stale soap opera, set in an antiques shop, and populated by ridiculous characters suffering ridiculous dramas in the most ridiculous setting.
It became a musical years later. It is sublime.
Enjoy, America—and farewell to a true comedy great.