Victoria Wood was a comic genius
She made us cry with laughter and smile at our own fears and insecurities, writes Allison Pearson
When the great composer George Gershwin died, the writer John O'Hara protested: "I don't have to believe it if I don't want to." That's how millions of us will have reacted last week on hearing the frankly unacceptable news that Victoria Wood has left us at the age of 62 after a short battle with cancer.
Female fans, in particular, may feel as if we have lost a mate, a true friend who made us laugh ("laff" she would say) at all the humiliations to which female flesh is heir. "Went into this boutique last week and the only thing that fitted me was the cubicle curtain."
I swear no one who witnessed it will ever forget "Vic" on stage, standing precariously on one leg and trying to mimic the woman in the diagram for tampon insertion in the Tampax box. Thousands of people in that audience at the Royal Albert Hall in 1996 literally cried with laughter.
If you bottled that sound, you could have sold it over the counter in Boots as a miracle tonic and that's exactly how she made us feel for over 30 years.
Today, a lot of people will say that Victoria Wood ranks among the very finest female comedians Britain has ever produced. And they will be wrong. She was, quite simply, the best comedian of either sex. Her timing, her droll physicality and the huge affection she inspired put her right up there with Eric Morecambe.
The uproarious wit and shaded sadness of her songs stand comparison with Noel Coward and Flanders and Swann. Her ability to expand the ordinary stuff of everyday lives into priceless human drama places her, with Alan Bennett, at the very top of the writers' league.
As Wood's five BAFTAs attest, there was nothing at which she was not the best.
I first saw her in 1983 in the back of a pub in north London. She stepped somewhat apologetically onto the tiny stage, this big lass in a deafening lemon jacket with a loosely knotted tie and a startled-cockatoo hairdo. I suppose we were expecting some standard fat-feminist jokes. More fool us.
She sat down at the piano and began to pound out songs with a jolly, syncopated beat.
Some of the songs were nostalgic - "I wanna be 14 again, when sex was just called Number 10/And I was up to seven and-a-half."
She had a wonderful ear and a magpie's beady eye for detail. "Time moves on, it leaves its clues/The tramps are wearing platform shoes."
Tramps in platform shoes?
A funny thought slapped up against a sad one, the classic Victoria Wood sandwich.
You couldn't call what Victoria Wood did satire. It wasn't cynical enough, too accepting of the human condition, veruccas and all. It was more like common-sense dancing. Much of the comic force came from an upbeat northern stoicism that treated peg bags and cruise missiles just the same.
Alan Bennett once remarked on "that unerring grasp of inessentials which is the prerogative of mothers".
Wood wasn't a mother back then (her beloved Grace and Henry came much later), but she certainly grasped how essential inessentials were.
Coconut matting, Fruit and Nut, Basildon Bond, grouting (as a substitute for sex), candlewick, tufted shag carpet, hostess trollies, being concussed by an electric potato peeler at the Ideal Home Exhibition.
Brand names were intrinsically funny, but they were also the co-ordinates by which people plotted their days and kept their unnamed fears at bay.
In the early 1980s, comedy clubs were full of angry young guys who could raise a cheer just by snarling "Thatcher".
You could tell that Wood wasn't going to slip into any ideological straitjacket. She wasn't interested in politics, it was people that fascinated her.
Back in 1973, when the 20-year-old Victoria Wood appeared on ITV's New Faces, the panel predicted that she would never work. Sophisticated cabaret had died with Noel Coward, they said. So she had to make it up as she went along.
Stand-up grew into sketches and sketches became the Victoria Wood As Seen on TV show, peopled by the gloriously barmy denizens of Wood's imagination.
Characters such as Acorn Antiques' Mrs Overall ("Moosant groombal") and Marjory and Joan, those Gorgons of daytime TV: "This morning, Philippa will be showing us how to stitch up the mouth of a talkative friend or relative."
And always in Wood's comedy there was bumptious, tubby Bathos and her sad, spindly sister, Pathos.
They brought Wood a battalion of Baftas. In 1994, critics who said she was too "cosy" were floored by Pat and Margaret, her lacerating comedy about celebrity.
Then came the blissful Dinnerladies, a sitcom set in a factory canteen, where an HRT patch inevitably fell into the minestrone. It was spiced with a dash of political incorrectness. What other comedy writer would dare to make her dimmest character an Asian?
"They can't all be Einsteins, can they?" reasoned Wood when I interviewed her back in 1998.
By then, Wood had assembled a wonderful repertory company of actors: Celia Imrie, Duncan Preston, Thelma Barlow, Anne Reid and, of course, Julie Walters, whom Wood first met when they were auditioning at Manchester Polytechnic in 1970.
Victoria, the product of a solitary and neglectful childhood, who comfort ate half her life to fill that void, clicked with the more naturally outgoing Walters.
It was one of the great double acts and it's a shame that their show, Wood and Walters, ran for just seven shows in 1982. The two women continued to work together and they were believed to be planning a new project when Wood fell ill six months ago.
Who knows what she would have done next? Wood had this astonishing ability to go on pushing her talent.
In 2006, she won two BAFTAs for her one-off drama, Housewife, 49, based on the wartime diaries of Nella Last, a Lancashire housewife.
Once again, Wood went in close on a so-called "ordinary" life only to reveal its depth and universality.
She could do that because she too had once been overlooked. "In my 20s," she recalled, "I was going round seeing agents who were patronising me because I was fat and a girl, which was a double whammy."
It was said that "Charles Dickens did not write what the people wanted. Dickens wanted what the people wanted." The same could be said of the genius Victoria Wood.
I will remember her always that night at the Royal Albert Hall, bringing 5,000 of us to our feet during an encore of the legendary, libidinous Let's Do It ("Bend me over backwards on me hostess trolley").
I can't bear to think that the source of all that mirth is gone, not least because Victoria would have made such a brilliant old lady.
"Everyone's a national treasure these days, you can't move for them," she objected not long ago when someone tried to pin that title on her. But how could we not love and treasure her, that blessedly funny girl who knew us better than we know ourselves?
Ten of her best jokes
1 I thought coq au vin was love in a lorry.
2 I once went to one of those parties where everyone throws their car keys into the middle of the room. I don't know who got my moped but I've been driving that Peugeot for years.
3 I've got a degree; does that mean I have to spend my life with intellectuals? I've also got a life-saving certificate, but I don't spend my evenings diving for a rubber brick with my pyjamas on.
4 My boyfriend had a sex manual but he was dyslexic. I was lying there and he was looking for my vinegar.
5 When I told jokes about cystitis, people would write in and say, "I've got cystitis and it isn't funny," so I would reply, "Well, send it back and ask for one that is."
6 A man is designed to walk three miles in the rain to phone for help when the car breaks down and a woman is designed to say, "You took your time" when he comes back dripping wet.
7 People think I hate sex. I don't. I just don't like things that stop you seeing the television properly.
8 A minor operation is one performed on somebody else.
9 The first day I met my producer, she said, "I'm a radical feminist lesbian." I thought what would the Queen Mum do? So I just smiled and said, "We shall have fog by tea-time."
10 Foreplay is like beefburgers - three minutes on each side.