Victoria Wood (June 2001)
Victoria Wood is folded away in the corner of a café. She looks compact, as if she’s willing herself not to be noticed, not to be famous, not to be the icon she in fact is. That’s not how she sees herself. She’s the consummate real person that writes so magnificently about real life and all its peculiarities.
She’s looking down at an imaginary Blackberry, consumed with her own thoughts, busy, occupied, self-sufficient. She looks unmistakeably her. Her hair short, blonde, with an overgrown fringe swept to the side of her face. Her large blue eyes peering underneath it.
When I say hello the contented self-contained figure seems ever so slightly self-conscious. I feel in the first few sentences of talking to her that I’m torturing her.
“No, people always think I hate doing interviews. I don’t. I wouldn’t do them if I didn’t like them. I have to say that at the start of every interview.”
We are here to talk about the play that she’s written, and is directing -That Day We Sang – it is to be the highlight of the Manchester International Festival. It’s about a children’s choir who sang and recorded Nymphs And Shepherds in 1929 and they reunite in 1969. The children’s choir existed, so did the reunion, everything else is fiction.
“Basically it’s the story of two middle-aged people, Tubby and Enid, who meet again in 1969. I didn’t have to research much of it because I was there. (She’s from Bury and was 16 in 1969 and somehow being 16, and feeling what that was like, and coming from Bury has never been far away from her thought processes). I talked to two ladies who were in the choir. They were 92 and 95.”
Wood’s comedy usually takes its basis in real seemingly unimportant people. She’s very relatable to. Once won a poll of people you’d most like to live next door to. Perhaps she has a huge faith in ordinariness.
She has an amazing ability to connect with a group. Spent years doing sell-out stand-up where her audience felt part of her. One on one however she is shy.
Her play starts by incorporating the shyness of two middle-aged people who were in a children’s choir and reunite to talk about it on Granada TV. “I saw a documentary which I thought was Granada in about 1975 and I remembered it for years. And then they found it for me and I watched it and it was nothing like I remembered it in any way. I’d invented the whole documentary in my head. It was strange, but that was the starting point.”
The play is typical Wood: tragic-comic, filled with achingly observed minutiae. Only Victoria Wood could have several minutes of successful dialogue devoted to yoghurts and their being slimming. Yoghurts were peaking in 1969.
She grins. “Yoghurts had to taste horrible or it wasn’t slimming. Do you remember Ski? It was 11p in my day.”
The yoghurt is a device that plugs into her memory, a catalyst for her to weave in other emotions. “They get very upset when they go to watch it on telly and it’s a little five minute thing. They go with a married couple and the married couple are quite rude because Enid’s not married and they say your life’s not worth anything unless you’re married. Tubby takes her off to give her a cup of tea and comfort her and he starts to befriend her.”
Interesting that she decided to put the bit in about “You’re not worth anything unless you’re married.” I wonder if that’s reflecting her feelings.
“People think you’re missing out if you’re single, I’m sure they do.” She always seemed very happy to be married to magician The Great Soprendo, Geoffrey Durham, crediting him with giving her confidence and was devastated and shocked when the marriage fell apart in 2002.
“Anyway, he’s trying to get a romance going in a very sensitive way and what he doesn’t know is that she’s having an affair with the boss. He’s making advances and she’s rebuffing him and he doesn’t know why.”
She smiles, giggles nervously even at the potential tragedy. “I did enjoy writing it but I felt under a lot of time pressure. I only finished it last Wednesday because I was writing something else at the same time – a screenplay about a fraudulent pianist called Joyce Hatto. She died about five years ago. She was a fraudster because her CDs were not by her. I’ve just torn myself away from the desk to come here,” she says. Remembering it makes her forehead furrow with tension. “It’s awful doing two things at once. Horrible.”
Is it harder to write a script than writing a character that she herself will perform? “No, it’s different. I haven’t written anything for myself for ages. I’ve been in script mode for ages. I’m not really in perform mode.”
She performed recently. She was Eric Morecambe’s mother Sadie in Eric And Ernie. (which is up for a BAFTA) It was on over Christmas. “Oh yeh, acting. I thought you meant being a comedienne. Morecambe and Wise; I keep forgetting that.
“Acting I don’t do much of that. Eric and Ernie, I didn’t write that.” Although it was her idea and she was a producer of it and many people assumed she did write it because she gave such an incredible performance that was quite far from herself of the stage mother who held Morecambe and Wise together.
“I feel very bad for the writer (Peter Bowker). He just won a BAFTA. If acting comes up then fine. But mainly I like writing, putting things together and producing.”
Maybe people assumed she wrote it because she dominated it. She made it her own. She got a lot of praise for it and her performance. “Yes, I have had accolades,” she says almost under her breath, her head bowing.
She has a clutch of writing and acting BAFTAs and a CBE. She doesn’t seem affected by them much
“Acting is not my favourite thing. I don’t like wearing costumes and wigs. I suppose you can do it without costumes and wigs, but then I’d just be playing myself and there wouldn’t be any point.”
She spent many years playing herself super successfully. Not in that mode any more. If that mode was about exorcising insecurities it’s long over. Instead insecurities are nurtured and put to good writing use. Does she find now that she’s writing she is spending too much time in her head?
“Once you start producing you’re out of your head. Once you start casting and talking to directors it’s great. Anyway, I don’t mind it. Once I get it out of my head and on to paper I’m happy, and I like to know at the end of it I can go out and see people.
“I do like writing. I like it a lot more than I used to. I used to find it scary and now I’ve got used to it once it gets going. I used to find it hard to start. Fear of the blank page. The first thing you write down won’t bear any relation to what’s in your head and that’s always disappointing, but I’ve learnt to deal with that disappointment,” she says with an almost raised eyebrow.
Reading her script it flows effortlessly. She tells me it wasn’t like that to write. “You have to polish and polish. I started in January, but then had to go back to Hatto. I did two drafts and all the songs in three months, so that is fast. But I’m not moaning. It was a lot of work and a lot of weekends, but you just keep going.”
You get the idea not so much that she enjoyed it but that it fulfilled a need to just keep going, to not stop think or feel. She likes the idea of reunions though. “I’ve been to school reunions. It was brilliant. I was the last one to leave. I was there all day with my friend and that was 20 years ago.”
Maybe they call came to see you? “No I don’t think they did. They came to see the school and the teachers. I was no big deal, honestly.”
I can’t imagine that was the case. Did she keep up with the people with whom she was reunited? “No. I’ve had the same two friends. I just see them. Two friends from school that is I do have more than two friends.”
Does she make friends easily? “I think I do make friends easily. But I’m in the business where people make friends really quickly, it’s a great business to be in for making friends. Instant connections. Always loads to talk about. You have to get on with people straight away if you’re rehearsing a play.”
Do those instant friends sometimes instantly disappear when the play is over? “They do. They serve their purpose. You have a working relationship. You can’t keep up with everybody. Your life would be a nightmare. There’s always one for every job, always somebody you pick up.”
She orders a latte and stares at it. Sometimes there’s a pause in conversation. I wouldn’t really say it’s an awkward silence. It’s a silence where she feels perfectly content and I feel anxious that she might stop feeling content. She’s a strange mixture of high and low self-esteem. But most of the low self-esteem was many years ago. Mostly it’s hidden. Not just from me, but from herself.
Did she always envisage herself writing? “No. I started off writing songs for the telly and then went on to do sketches and then stand-up and I spent a long time doing stand-up and writing sitcoms and plays. Always looking to do something new.” She’s always overstretched herself. “Yes, but it’s good though. I like to be busy.”
I read that there was a chunk of her life where she survived on only four hours sleep. “Only weeks when I was doing Dinner Ladies. When you do a sitcom for the BBC it starts on a Monday and you record on a Friday so it’s all very pushed. I’d always want to change things so I’d work through the night to make sure on Tuesday it was as I wanted it.
“I don’t think I changed the story lines. I can’t remember. It’s a bit of a blur. It was ten years ago. It’s always on though. Because of what they wear it doesn’t look dated. Tabards,” she says, really enjoying the word. It makes me think of Mrs Apron in Acorn Antiques.
“I never knew a dinner lady. I heard a documentary on the radio about girls who worked in a canteen. You just use your imagination. ”
You imagine her always switched on, never relaxed. “I don’t work all the time. I’ve just worked a lot lately because my son went to college in October and I thought I’d better have a lot of jobs on so I wouldn’t feel…” she searches for the word. Emptiness syndrome, I offer. “So perhaps I did cram in too much. I was worried about that but it’s been alright because he’s here all the time.
“My daughter (Grace) is in Verona. She’s doing languages and having a year abroad. He does music, composition and music technology. He is more like me. She is the intellectual like her father, and he’s funny,” she says very pleased with that.
Does she think one is born funny? “I think you are born funny but having a funny parent helps the way you develop. My father could be funny. My mother had no sense of humour as she was always claiming very proudly as if it was something to be proud of.”
You see something in her now that wasn’t there before, a sudden flash of barb. Her mother must have inspired a whole mixture of interesting emotions. “My mother, she didn’t believe in praise. She’d never say anything was great. I think that’s quite northern, to not make people feel too good. I didn’t mind if she was proud of me or not, it didn’t bother me. I was never trying to please her.”
Was she trying to please herself? “No, I was trying to get on. Get on with the job and make a success.”
She has a brother and two sisters. “I can’t talk about them. They don’t like it. They are very private.” She was the youngest.
Her father was an insurance salesman like Tubby, the character in the play “He’s not based on my dad but it’s a job I know. I know what buildings my dad worked in and it gave me a grounding.
“My father was more of a praiser, not hugely more, but I knew he liked what I did because he was very interesting in songwriting and comedy. He wrote songs himself for the insurance company’s annual do.”
Does she think she is a self-contained self-confident person? “Yes. I am self-confident and I am self-contained.” Was she always? “No, not at all. Not as a teenager and not as a young woman.”
There are glimpses of the angst-ridden teenager, the one who feels everything too sorely, usually in her work. The Woods that’s here today is a woman who has decided nothing will bother her.
How did she acquire confidence? “It’s just what happens when you get older (she is 57). You know who you are and you know a lot of things are just not worth worrying about. It just came on me gradually that I mind about things a lot less.”
I tell her that I have a reverse process going on. I mind about things a lot more. She looks surprised. So it wasn’t just being more successful that made her more confident? “No, but it’s nice to be earning a living. I’m always happy that I’m earning a living and that I’ve bought a house, things like that. Straightforward things but they mean something. We’ve all got our insecurities. We never forget what it’s like. And as a writer you just plug into different bits of your own persona and expand that to suit the story.”
Maybe writing makes them go away? Maybe that’s the cure? “I don’t think there is a cure but I keep things more simple than I used to.”
What does she mean by that? “I’ve had a very complicated life and now I don’t worry about so many things.” You mean there’s less going on? I feel like we’re talking in riddles. “I’ve got my friends and my kids and I’m alright. I don’t have a boyfriend. I’d love to talk about a boyfriend if I had one. I’d be delighted, but I don’t have that so that’s what I mean. I’m simplified.”
I read that for a long time she’d separated but you didn’t divorce. “I am divorced. I’ve been divorced for years. It was horrible, hideous, I wouldn’t recommend it. He’s in another relationship. I don’t want to talk about him.” Durham lost ten stone at Overeaters Anonymous and then lost Wood.
So has she chosen to be on her own because she needs her life to be uncomplicated without emotional friction? “Well I think there’s not much of a chance for me finding somebody of my age. Gentlemen of my age are dropping down 30 years to find girlfriends.” That’s not always the case. “You’re right. I need to get out of the house.” A small pause. “When I’m not working so much I do go out with my friends and have cups of tea and sometimes cups of champagne.”
How is her relationship with food? “It’s doing very well thank you.” She once did a documentary about the dieting industry, she herself lost weight, strove to be healthy and exercised well after she turned 50. She said she used to eat all the time and was never hungry. “That’s true. I was never hungry. You’re not if you eat all the time. You never get that feeling of hunger because that’s a scary feeling. You want to be full. You want your mind to be distracted. You want to put a wall between you and real life. It’s like the drink or the fags or the drugs. It’s all the same. Some people have addictive natures and some people have odd relationships with food. I do have an addictive nature, but it’s manageable. I think having children soaks up a lot of your addictiveness because you’re occupied in a healthy busy way.”
That must have been why she was worried about her son Henry leaving. “His laundry still comes to my house. I don’t know why, he just leaves lots of clothes there. I can’t explain his strange addiction to buying T-shirts. If I buy something I have to get rid of something at the same time. I’m an anti-hoarder. I fear being my mother because she hoarded. If you buy something you get rid of the same amount of things to Oxfam.” That’s very controlled. “There’s no harm in a bit of control.
“My mother was terrible. She’d get things off mail order, bedding, towels and shoes. I mean she was in bed, she didn’t even walk. No idea why she was ordering shoes. Thank God she didn’t have the internet. She had a completely choc-a-bloc bungalow and in the garage there were wardrobes and each wardrobe was filled with books. Everything was full. I can’t bear it. My other liked having things. She liked parcels in the post.” Maybe that was her version of eating? “She did eating as well. She had a food problem and a hoarding problem. It’s going a long way back to when I was eating all the time. It’s not part of my life now.”
She talks so viscerally about her mother I can see falling back into those patterns would be horrible for her. “I’ve been lucky.”
Does she find it cathartic to write characters with similar insecurities? “I don’t even think about it. The people in your head have all got a little of yourself but you don’t connect it consciously. You’re telling a story.”
When she’s written her screenplay what will she do? Will she take a break? “I won’t go anywhere. I just won’t write for a bit. I’ll just have an ordinary life.” Will she be worried about having that space? “No, something will always come up. I’m always being asked to front documentaries. I’ve got a few of my own in mind. But for the moment I’m running out of brain. Working makes me happy, but also being out in the open air. I can’t think of what makes me unhappy I’m pretty even keeled. I think when you’re not in a relationship you are not even keeled. You are not bumping up against somebody having highs and lows. That’s what I meant about keeping things simple. There’s more emotions flying about. When you’re not in a relationship you don’t have those emotions.”
Does she want to be even keeled? “I don’t know. I need to stop working and taking stock because it’s been very work orientated for the past two years.”
Does she think she’ll ever feel passion about acting again? “I’m more interested in directing people than acting with them and I think it’s interesting to change what you do. It doesn’t denigrate what you did before. I adored it now I do something else that I adore. I like change, I like to feel I’m learning all the time. I always hoped I’d be performing as a child and a teenager. I feel lucky that I managed to do it and now I like doing something else.”
With that she returns to her anxious face and says she needs to get going, she has a script to get back to.