As Victoria Wood entered the nineteen eighties, it seemed she had everything to play for. Her initial breakthrough via talent show “New Faces” had given her national exposure, consolidated by her appearances on BBC television’s “That’s Life”.
Her remarkable play “Talent” had been a success at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, transferring to London before being picked up for a television adaptation. Her friend and mentor Peter Eckersley – Granada’s head of drama – had seen her through intial jitters and with the future at her feet, he now offered her a pilot sketch show.
Still lacking the confidence to fully carry it off, Wood said she’d only do it if her friend Julie Walters got co-headline credit. With this proviso the show went ahead under the name “Two Creatures Great And Small” – airing on the first day of the new year, 1981. Somewhat jittery at the prospect of stepping out on a new path, Wood fell back on what she knew, with the result that the show was front-loaded with her trademark comic songs. In one twenty five minute show, there are several – a duet to start with, one each for Victoria and Julie and a cast-raveup at the end. Amused to find the opening number features Julie pointing out the number of people who used to mistake Victoria for Pam Ayres.
There are a few sketches, one of which features Walters playing an elderly advice columnist called Dottie. Seasoned Wood watchers will identify the roots of Patricia Routledge’s character “Kitty”, later to become popular and irritating in equal measures on “As Seen On Tv”. Dottie is ambushed by a dance routine, hoisted aloft in a most undignified manner by dancer Keith Hodiak. One can only thank the stars that Kitty didn’t follow suit.
Most of the sketches are undistinguished, passing by with barely a joke or anything resembling a punchline. They shudder to a halt, almost as if embarrassed. The final sketch is a different kettle of fish – featuring Wood as a customer and Walters as particularly chatty hairdresser, it features a physical punchline so savage, so brutal that I’m amazed it ever got passed.
Wood loathed the finished result with a passion, and was surprised when it was nominated for a Light Entertainment Bafta. Stanley Baxter won it that year which seems right and fair to me.
There was clearly room for improvement, but there’s enough in the pilot show to indicate that things would get better. Plans were laid for a full series, to be called “Wood and Walters”. Then, tragedy struck in the worst way. Peter Eckersley died of cancer.
Cut adrift without her strongest supporter, Wood found herself with a new producer, parachuted in at extremely short notice. While perfectly competent, Brian Armstrong didn’t exactly see eye to eye with his new charge, and Wood was perturbed to find the studio audience filled with pensioners who had to have the jokes laboriously explained to them. Wood recalled ruefully that she heard one old dear mutter to her companion in disgust, “and we’re missing Brideshead for this!”
By all accounts, it wasn’t a happy production. Wood felt isolated, with no creative control. She felt that several of the supporting cast members had been foisted on her with no prior consultation. To be honest, given that some of those cast members included Roger Brierley, Bernard Wrigley, Michael Angelis and Duncan Preston, it’s difficult to see how much better director Stuart Orme could have done.
“Wood and Walters” has taken a long time to come to DVD. Scheduled several times and cancelled repeatedly, Network DVD have finally managed it. It’s here at last, and we can now make up own minds as to whether we agree with Wood’s own take on her first major series – “some bits of it were good, others deathly.”
The DVD includes that first shaky pilot, and all seven episodes of the series. To be honest, Wood’s opinion is right on the money. You can see everyone struggling to make the material work, and sometimes they do.
In episode 1 there’s a call-and-response version of “Leader of the Pack” with Wood as one of the backing singers disrupting things with pithy comments while Walters tries to hold it together which is pretty much the template for any number of future sketches, both by her and others. It really works – not least because all the performers are visibly enjoying the material. I’m pretty sure I saw Little and Large doing something similar, although I’ve tried to block it from my memory.
Unfortunately for every one of those there’s a sketch like the one in the pilot that kicks the whole thing off where Wood goes on a blind date with Robert Longden as a particularly self-absorbed and snarky businessman. I don’t think I laughed once. The audience didn’t either.
Most of the Wood preoccupations abound. Horrible old ladies. Social differences. Wordplay based misunderstandings (“what do you think of Manet?” “Well, I spend it if I’ve got it, obviously”). It’s all here, but there’s a chill in the air. It’s fascinating to realise how much of the warmth of Victoria Wood’s sketch comedy depends on her having the support of a studio audience. Without it, things can seem, well… a bit harsh and unforgiving, to be honest.
In much the same way as the sterile atmosphere in “Only Fools and Horses” – “A Royal Flush” throws Del’s unpleasant characteristics into sharp relief, many of the sketches here seem to feature people being pushy and slightly nasty to each other for no readily apparent reason.
I don’t for one minute believe that you need a studio audience to tell you where the jokes are. Everyone’s clever enough to work out for themselves what’s funny.There’s no denying though that when an audience is present and enjoying themselves the performers will feed off the energy in the room, adapting the material so it plays best in the moment. Riding the laugh, lengthening and shortening the delivery so it best suits that particular instant. That element is very obviously absent in some of the sketches here, particularly in the early part of the series. Walters is extremely uncertain on occasion, but she hurls herself into it regardless. Wood just looks terrified. To be fair, both their names are in the titles so they’re the ones who take the fall if it doesn’t work so she probably has the right to be scared.
Knowing that it all got better for those concerned makes it easier to watch but you feel for the participants as sketch after sketch falls into a void. Alan Lake appears as a smug cabaret star who gets more than he bargains for with Wood and Walters as the only groupies in town, and I watched it through my knuckles. I’m not kidding. The comedy of embarrassment is one thing. But embarrassing comedy I can do without.
In one incredible sketch Wood claims to have given birth to 740 babies (“well, it was 742, but we mislaid a couple on the way back from the hospital”). Unfortunately, that’s just about the only line in the entire thing that’s audible, because the studio is filled with babies – I counted something like seventy names listed in the end credits. Every single one of them is screaming their lungs off. The noise is unbelievable. It swamps everything else. You can see Walters in particular isn’t comfortable, though she gives it her best shot. Sadly, she could be delivering the best performance of her career with all of her finest material crafted to perfection. All I can hear is seventy babies howling. More power to them for having the guts to try it. It may be a failure, but it’s a spectacular one.
Dottie pitches up as too, the sole carry-over from the pilot. Walters refines her over the series into a pink-suited nightmare. Closing my eyes I can still see her lurking there dispensing awful advice with a plastic surgery smile. British comedy is littered with memorable monsters, and Dottie certainly qualifies. Sitting there delivering her homilies into the camera with a fixed smile and nothing behind the eyes… brr. Everyone knows someone like Dottie. We must just be thankful that most of them don’t get to present an agony column on national television.
As you might expect, the comic songs are present and correct – thankfully they’re used as the spice rather than the main course and as the series progresses things start to really work. It also gives valuable early exposure to John Dowie and Rik Mayall – Dowie’s comic monologue and song in the first episode is worth the price of the DVD alone.
Following a scene-stealer of a cameo in Wood’s play “Nearly a Happy Ending”, Jill Summers turns up delivering a terrific monologue in character as an airport baggage attendant. With a lengthy revue career behind her, Summers would go on to notoriety as Coronation Street battleaxe Phyllis Pearce, and she’s formidable here – leaning on a suitcase holder with a fag on and a headscarf locked firmly in place. It’s notable that she’s just about the only person to get any reaction out of the audience at all – there are shots of various seventy-somethings virtually weeping with laughter at some of her jokes. At the end of the sketch as she walks off, Summers pauses, whips off the scarf and smiles at the audience in thanks – and the smile transforms her face totally – all of a sudden she’s a benign, gentle looking middle-aged woman and you realise that we’ve just seen a really decent and talented comedy actress at work. It’s a shame more people didn’t notice, really.
If I’m being honest, I can’t recommend this as an example of high quality comedy, because it isn’t. It’s blighted by the production problems and a lack of confidence, some of which spills over into the framing sequences – usually shot without an audience, these involve Julie and Victoria facing difficulties in just getting the show started (not able to get past security, that sort of thing).
After the end credits on episode two they have a little chat about how the producer always comes down to congratulate everyone on a successful show – then realise that everyone’s gone home and there’s no sign of him. At which point both start to sob into their sleeves with a little bit too much conviction.
The thing is – for all that it’s a failure, the show’s never less than fascinating. Great comedy usually doesn’t come from nowhere and Wood’s particular brand obviously needed years of honing before she nailed it. Thing is, Wood’s always moving, always restless. “As Seen On Tv” may be her most visibly popular manifestation (except perhaps “dinnerladies”) but there’s a hell of a difference between that and this, or indeed between this and “Pat and Margaret”.
There’s no shame in trying and falling on your face. The fact that Wood *does* try, then picks herself up again, learns from the experience and gets better and better makes this an invaluable document and she shouldn’t be ashamed of it being publically available. It’ll do her reputation no harm at all. Sometimes the doodles in the margin of a sketchbook are every bit as fascinating and insightful as the finished painting.
Victoria Wood is a comic artist, no doubt about that. Buy this, and see how she became one.
Wood and Walters – The Complete Series is available October 18th from Network DVD.