I was listening to a podcast from Word Magazine recently. David Hepworth was regaling the other participants with the tale of a recent backstage encounter – he’d been schmoozing at a showbiz bash in London which was attended by Kenny Rogers, amongst others.
In the Green Room afterwards, the story goes that the dapper, grey bearded one was most put out by the fact that most of the other people at the party were crazed and starstruck by the presence of an unassuming, middle-aged English woman. That woman was Victoria Wood, who was presumably not fazed one bit by all the attention.
According to Hepworth, Kenny Rogers couldn’t stand the fact that he wasn’t the most famous person in the room. I’d be inclined to take the story with a pinch of salt but there’s no denying that Victoria Wood holds a special place in the affections of those of us who grew up watching her work from the nineteen-eighties onwards. It was a long road to her current position of beloved elder stateswoman, and she worked hard to get there. Most of us are familiar with Victoria as a talented comedienne, wit, writer and performer of comedy songs. She’s also a dab hand at drama as well. This month Network DVD release a special compilation of three of her earliest screenplays, enabling us to chart the evolution of a formidable talent.
It’s probable that Victoria Wood first came to most people’s attention after her appearance on the ITV talent show “New Faces”, or for her work on That’s Life. Obviously talented, Wood was soon writing and performing in a revue at The Bush Theatre called “In At the Death”. Impressed by this David Leland commissioned her to write a play about strippers for the Sheffield Crucible Theatre. When this didn’t pan out, she decided to try an idea of her own, which slowly evolved into the play “Talent”.
Becoming a substantial success in August 1978 and transferring to London in 1979, it certainly attracted attention. Peter Eckersley, Head of Drama at Granada Television, had faith in Wood and commisioned a TV adaptation which aired on 5th August, 1979, and it’s this play that’s first up on Network’s current release.
It’s a downbeat and melancholy little piece. Set in a seedy nightclub somewhere in the North called “Bunters”, it stars Julie Walters (originally slated to be the star of the stage show but unavailable at the time) as “Julie”, and Wood herself as her friend “Maureen”.
Office girl and single-mum Julie has aspirations of becoming a singing star and enters a local talent contest. Armed only with her copy of the sheet music to “Cabaret” and with faithful companion Maureen at her side, she begins to realise that this is not going to be the path to fame, fortune and glory that she might have hoped. Even if it is – does she actually want it?
Studio-bound apart from some establishing inserts and a brief sequence at the end, “Talent” takes place almost entirely in one cramped dressing room set and a couple of corridors. The set is barely large enough to hold Walters, who begins the play in a jittery state and proceeds rapidly towards hysteria by the time we reach the third act. Small wonder, as we watch her dreams slowly being eroded in a series of tawdry encounters. She meets her ex-boyfriend (and father of her child) – now playing piano for the hopefuls in the contest. He’s also the husband of “Cathy Christmas” – perceived to be the biggest fish in this remarkably small pond despite no perceivable talent at all (she delivers a shrill performance of “We Can Work It Out” at one point which will take your breath away).
Her confidence already knocked, Julie is then severely rattled by the ultra-sleazy owner and compere of “Bunters”. Oversexed, overpaid and overweight, he’s not content to simply hit on her, he has to hammer her aspirations into the ground as well, and try it on with her best friend into the bargain. It’s not all terrible in clubland, though – there’s a variety act featuring Bill Waddington taking part as well, and he’s perfectly content with his lot. He wanders calmly in and out of the plot, chatting easily with the girls, unnerving the staff with his remarkable professionalism, and even giving a turn on the banjo. It’s not the only music to be heard. Not by a very long chalk.
Ploughing similar ground to Dennis Potter’s “Pennies From Heaven” (aired not long before), the characters express their innermost feelings through songs specially written in Victoria Wood’s custom semi-vaudeville style. Sewn seamlessly into the plot, these aren’t so much interruptions as genuine progressions – every one is a turning point in the narrative, the last of which more or less brings the play to a conclusion, with just room for a couple of brief wrap-up scenes.
It’s a difficult watch at times. The cast are uniformly superb, but there’s a feeling of doomed hopes and shattered dreams drifting about here. The eternal duo of Wood and Walters dominate the screen even when they’re doing nothing but sipping babycham and nattering about not a lot. Each get a couple of songs (Wood’s “Fourteen Again” is rumoured to be a favourite of Morrisey’s who may have derived inspiration for “Rusholme Ruffians” from it). Bill Waddington’s duet with his sidekick is a highlight – smooth, polished and good natured in a piece which sorely needs a little optimism.
The other main male characters are uniformly sleazy and horrible, not least when Maureen is being fondled by the nightclub boss and invited for a quick knee-trembler in the back of his cortina after the show. Julie’s ex-boyfriend’s speech where he destroys her ambitions with a few carefully worded sentences breaks her heart. It may cause yours to tremble a bit as well.
It’s a beautiful piece – albeit one that leaves a melancholy aftertaste – and it’s well worth seeing. A cracking script, economically directed by Baz Taylor (behind the camera on all three of these plays) and with performances pitched at just the right level. It’s lovely.
Small wonder that a year later Julie and Maureen were back in a sequel play – this time going directly to television. “Nearly A Happy Ending” (aired 1st June, 1980) picks up some time later and times are hard for Julie.
The hardest they’ve ever been, it seems – she’s lost her boyfriend (died at a tragically young age), and she’s drifting. Sitting in darkness and smoking endless fags, she’s been reduced to watching Welsh-language drama on the tv and guessing at what’s going on.
Maureen’s on the up though. Attending slimmers classes, she’s coming close to losing the poundage and attaining the optimum target weight she’s always dreamed of. She persuades Julie along to witness her moment of triumph. Another carefully choreographed number later the job is done, and the girls go out to celebrate. Maureen wants to lose her virginity and Julie… well, Julie just needs a night out.
They end up in the middle of a business conference, surrounded by lecherous middle management (and an exquisite barbershop quartet), and it looks like Maureen will achieve her ambitions. But as ever with these two, it’s never going to be that simple.
As Maureen attacks her chosen conquest like a bull at a gate, Julie falls in with the comedian who’s been booked for the evening cabaret. Played by Peter Martin with an air of quiet, dignified resignation at what his life has led him to, Les Dickey knows what’s expected of him and together with the hotel barman (a cameo from original “Not The Nine O’Clock News” cast member Christopher Godwin), Julie finally lifts out of her doldrums and allows herself to dream again.
Can it be that life is about to take a turn for the better? Will our two tarnished heroines finally be able to follow their star? I’m not saying, but it’s another cracker. Best watched back to back with “Talent”, it makes you realise just how dynamite the chemistry between Wood and Walters is. It was always there, obviously.
Other little treasures to watch out for include a sweet little supporting role for Jill Summers, aka Coronation Street’s Phyllis Pearce. Formidable in a pinny and brandishing a broom like her life depended on it, she wanders in, steals her scenes and then wanders back out again. It’s almost as if she’s in it by accident.
Once again, the musical numbers are seamless, once again, everyone in it works that material to the utmost, and although neither this nor “Talent” are flawless, you can watch Wood’s signature style developing.
Her compassion for the down trodden, her love of whimsy, her astonishing musical talent, the droll one-liners – it’s all there, and it’s almost as if she’s whittling it all into shape as she goes. Every play is a little better than the one before. But great as both these pieces are, she’s saving the best to last. The final play on the disk is remarkable.
“Happy Since I Met You”, aired 9th August 1981, dispenses with both Julie and Maureen in order to tell a new story. Shot entirely on film as opposed to the studio-bound feel of the previous two plays and running at a compact fifty minutes, this is something special.
Discontented and mid-twenties, drama teacher Frances (Walters again) doesn’t know what she wants, but she knows she doesn’t know how to get it. Just about resigned to spinsterhood, she’s not ready for the massive changes wreaked in her life when she meets Jim (and now, the planets align as long-term Wood collaborator Duncan Preston appears in a piece by her for the very first time).
It’s love at first sight for both. The early stages of romance are charted with painstaking detail, followed by the heady rush of setting up home together and a horrible slow-decay in which the relationship is almost drowned because Frances just can’t cope with suddenly not being on her own anymore. Snarling, she turns on Jim, who reveals himself to be not entirely without fangs himself. Some of the scenes where the two fight are the most powerful in any of the three plays.
Duncan Preston gives the performance of his life. It’s difficult to work with Julie Walters and not be totally overshadowed, but he manages it, and how. The two of them are electric together, even at their most emotionally wracked and unlikeable.
Wood confines herself mostly to the soundtrack (although she cameos as one of Frances’s fellow teachers), singing a single piece that weaves through the entire play and underscores the emotional beats. Giddy and upbeat, circling and restless, eventually drained of all emotion – the music matches the action almost scene for scene and it left this viewer drained by the end.
Things come to a resolution – of sorts – and we’re left to wonder what’s next for Frances and Jim. It’s a shame we never found out. This is exquisite television making, fully justifying the faith Eckersley showed in Wood at an early stage. Easy, assured and powerful, Wood’s writing here is extraordinary in one still so young. More than worth the price of the disk alone, this is a piece you will feel enriched for seeing. The narrative doesn’t go anywhere you’ve never been before but it’s so… exquisite, it feels like the archetypal telling of an archetypal story. When even a line like “I’m sorry I broke your radio” rings with understated emotion, you know they’re doing something right.
As a document of some of Britain’s most loved television and film talent slowly discovering just what they were capable of, this is fascinating. As entertainment, it’s unbeatable. I really can’t recommend it strongly enough.
Victoria Wood : Screenplays is available from Network DVD , Oct 18th. RRP £8.99.