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The unseen Victoria Wood

13 November 2021

9:00 AM

13 November 2021

9:00 AM

For a few years now I have been living with Victoria Wood. That sounds all wrong, obviously, and yet no more apt phrase suggests itself. Not long after her death I was invited to write her authorised biography, and in due course a vast collection of documents was delivered to my address. Packed into storage boxes, which I stacked in corners and stuffed under beds, her intellectual legacy became a physical fact.

It was in sifting through this remarkable archive that I started to come across work — masses of it — that had never seen the light of day. At its core was a stash of 100 television sketches. More than half were intended for her canonical mid-1980s chef d’oeuvre Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV which, unlike any sketch show before or since, was entirely written by its star. It’s no hyperbole to say that finding them felt like digging up buried treasure.

I submitted the first draft of Let’s Do It at the start of lockdown last year. Among the first to read the biography was Lucy Ansbro, the literary executor of the Victoria Wood estate, who intuited that I might feel forlorn at the prospect of letting Victoria go. ‘We’re going to have to find something else for you to do,’ she said. ‘Funny you should say that…’ I replied. With Lucy’s blessing I set out to collect the unpublished work I’d found in the archive.

Having no desire to be accused of exploiting Victoria’s memory, or of diluting her status as one of the greats of comedy, I would often interrogate the validity of this project. It was a new dilemma in relation to a beloved entertainer. Usually when the archives of such figures are posthumously exhumed, it’s home movies that surface. So it was with Eric Morecambe and Peter Sellers. But they weren’t writers.

I found it reassuring to be told by Geoffrey Durham, who lived with Victoria for 26 years, that she never had any compunction about chucking away stuff that didn’t work. While there are several long-form scripts in the archive — I’ve included a semi-autobiographical TV play rejected by BBC Birmingham when she was a student — there is no sign of the unused film scripts and abandoned stage plays that occupied her in the 1980s. These she had evidently destroyed. If she kept material, it was because she valued it. Indeed, when Methuen started publishing her sketches, Victoria blithely included a dozen scripts written for As Seen on TV which were never broadcast. She was happy for work unseen on TV to be consumed as printed material.

There was a reason for all this productivity. Victoria fell into the habit of overwriting after recording her first sketch show Wood and Walters in 1981. Some items didn’t hit the spot with a baffled elderly studio audience. Resolving never again to feel so exposed, from then on she made sure she had a reserve. For her 2000 show Victoria Wood with All the Trimmings there was enough sparkling material to fill another special, which she eventually decided against making.

Among the many surprises, even the Wood and Walters folder contained a surplus. The best is a sketch called ‘Comedy Ration Book’, which parodied the meaningless catchphrases spouted by 1940s entertainers. ‘Can I burst your blister, mister?’ ‘We never did that in Delhi!’ This was a good 15 years before Paul Whitehouse played Arthur Atkinson on The Fast Show. Similarly, in an As Seen on TV file I found a grumpy schoolgirl saying ‘I’m not actually bothered’ two decades ahead of Catherine Tate.

The sketches vary in length and, occasionally, quality. Now and then Victoria couldn’t come up with a resounding punchline with which to round one off. Mainly, though, scripts were ditched for other reasons. Sometimes a guest actor hadn’t learned the lines accurately enough — a cardinal sin in the eyes of their author. Often her producer Geoff Posner insisted on using sketches the star was in, rather than ones she wasn’t. At the recording, one sketch might have got more laughs than another (although this was an unreliable barometer of quality: the first time Acorn Antiqueswas shown to a studio audience, it was greeted by stunned silence).

So the leftover cache sat around unseen for up to 40 years. When it emerged, it bore few signs of age beyond the odd cultural reference and an absence of modern techspeak. Victoria Wood put women, and hang-ups about class and sex and body image, at the heart of her comedy. These fixations have not gone away. Meanwhile the naff TV she pioneeringly ripped to shreds is, of course, still with us. Her several unused spoofs of detective drama across a 25-year period would make a show on their own.

The sketch I was happiest to disinter is really the foundation stone of her entire career in comedy. Plenty of female comics joke about sex now. None did back when Victoria, aged 25, nipped to the ladies during rehearsals for a revue at the Bush Theatre and wrote ‘Sex’. Until then she was subsisting as a topical songwriter — indeed, she was only in the show to contribute songs. But a gap needed plugging and she was inspired by meeting Julie Walters, who was also in the cast, to dash off a four-page skit about an ignorant young librarian who fears she’s pregnant. ‘Where are you in the menstrual cycle?’ she’s asked. ‘Taurus,’ she blurts. Victoria would always say that the torrents of laughter greeting this perfectly crafted feed and punch line set her on her way. But ‘Sex’ was only ever seen by 90 people a night across three weeks in the summer of 1978.

It’s not been possible to cram in everything. The half-hour play I found in a school exercise book, while delightful, was written before she discovered economy. I concluded that the alternative Queen’s Speech from her 1996 stage show was a rare misfire, and omitted it. But I have included previously unpublished character monologues, many long-forgotten song lyrics, plus other curios starting with a charming poem composed at 13 for the Bury Grammar School magazine. Among other juvenilia, three scripts have been donated by the student contemporaries Victoria wrote them for in the mid-1970s.

There were sundry speeches to choose between too. Usually she gave these to launch books or accept honorary degrees. But in her last big speech, at a school prize-giving, she joked about Operation Yewtree. That was in 2013, when several celebrities had recently been arrested. Having just turned 60, and addressing an audience of teenagers, Victoria remained challengingly up to date.

She also kept a foot fondly in the world of yesterday. Later that year she wrote and performed a comic epithalamium for the nuptials of two friends. ‘Whitney’s Wedding’ was inspired by Stanley Holloway’s crackly 78rpm recording of ‘The Lion and Albert’ which she knew well from childhood. For one last time — though she wasn’t to know this — she brought the house down. In that uproarious end was Victoria Wood’s beginning.

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Victoria Wood Unseen on TV, edited by Jasper Rees, is published by Trapeze in hardback and eBook

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