victoria wood

I’m writing this on Friday 22 April, two days after hearing the dreadful news of the death of Victoria Wood.

A lot of my time recently has been spent on producing the Guilty Feminist podcast. One of my tasks for today was to do the final edit on our next episode, about Representation. Hosts Deborah and Sofie and guest Margaret Cabourn-Smith hilariously and accurately skewer the lack of women and other diversities on most television comedy shows. I want to say a few words here about the debt which they and others owe to Victoria Wood.

The twelve episodes of As Seen on TV (and one special) which she created in the 1980s are some of the best British television sketch comedy since Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It’s not always appreciated that whereas shows like The Two Ronnies or Not the Nine O’Clock News employed armies of writers, Victoria Wood wrote every word of every episode on her own.

As well as crucifyingly funny sketches featuring a brilliant supporting cast, these episodes also included Victoria Wood performing blistering stand-up comedy. Despite all of the issues which face female stand-up comedians today, many of which are discussed on the Guilty Feminist, it’s nevertheless true that when today’s teenagers turn on the television, they can see people such as previous Guilty Feminist guests: Sara Pascoe, Shappi Khorsandi, Jo Caulfield or Roisin Conaty. Women, performing stand-up comedy alongside their male counterparts.

But in 1984, when As Seen on TV was first transmitted, stand-up comedy on British television was pretty much exclusively male and much of it was still mired in the working man’s club comedy of the 1970s. The alternative comedy revolution had begun, but it was still in its infancy and still very much a boys club. The Young Ones (starring five men) had only just gone out. Saturday Live (with only male stars among its regulars) was still a year away. French and Saunders wouldn’t get their own show until 1987.

So, when it comes to women performing stand up comedy on television, the only role models for Victoria Wood would have been vague memories of Joyce Grenfall, or people like Jim Davidson, Stan Boardman and Bernard Manning. Possibly she’d managed to see Joan Rivers or Phyllis Diller or Elaine May, who knows? And yet she managed to create – seemingly out of nowhere – a style of stand-up comedy which today still seems completely modern. She was personal and confessional, but never needy or neurotic, satirising the mores of contemporary life but still happy to make herself the butt of the joke. Whereas shows like The Young Ones, as brilliant and ground-breaking as they were, have dated rather badly, Victoria Wood’s comedy still seems amazingly fresh. Of her contemporaries, I would say only Dave Allen can even come close to matching her.

She was followed, in pretty short order, by dozens of others; many still working, some all-but forgotten: Jo Brand, Donna McPhail, Jenny Eclair, Rhona Cameron, Helen Lederer, Jenny Lecoat, Morwena Banks and many more. But Victoria Wood blazed the trail which Sofie and Deborah are following to this day, managing to be not just the first female but for years the very best comedian on British television, man or woman.

I can’t quite believe she’s gone. We are dedicating the next episode of the Guilty Feminist to her.

Victoria Wood. RIP.