HIDDEN tracks

Music was Pete Paphides' first love. And at this rate, it will be his last.

Victoria Wood

Mon, 1st January 2001

I used to watch other comedians and wonder why they had a series”

As dressing rooms go, the one at the Oxford Apollo speaks of a life lived virtuously. A dozen bottles of Evian and a huge wooden bowl, filled with apples, oranges, bananas and precisely two figs. There's a book about Maria Callas's relationship with Aristotle Onassis lying face down on the carpet, and beside it, a sofa with Victoria Wood on it – sipping tea. Friendly, but also a little edgy. There's something about places like this that stiffen the spine somewhat. 'It's harder work playing big ornate theatres,' she agrees, 'You really have to try and relax the audience.' She's quick to add though, that this week's Royal Albert Hall shows, are an exception. “The audience is up close, plus it's a good colour too."

True. Red velour too often gets a bad press.

"I think it puts people in a good mood,” she says emphatically.

Absolutely. Look at pubs.


It's true! Don't you think?

"I don’t know," she says, “I don't drink.”

So, no after-show for you?

“Not really. That's the other good thing about doing London – after the show, I can just get in my car and drive straight back to my life." And what a nice life it is. With the lanterns, red phone boxes and merry back streets of Highgate Village a stone's throw to the left; and to the right, just beside the tube station she rarely uses, Highgate woods. On some Sundays, Wood, her magician husband Geoffrey and their two children will go for walks there. On other Sundays, they'll meet him there after he returns from the local Quaker meeting. They don't stand out in an area drenched with a more understated kind of celebrity. It is, I say, the best kind of posh…

"Well, yes,' she says, relaxing visibly. "I know it's posh. But it does have a feel of normality about it. There's cubs and brownies and a drama group and a community centre."

Exactly. The best kind of posh. Not like, say, Knightsbridge.

"No," she agrees, “It's not Knightsbridge."

It's understandable that Victoria Wood might be a little eager to play down the trappings of her success. One of her well-known fans Richard E. Grant refers to her work as "the comedy of the commonplace." And we tend to think that once your life deviates from that of your audience, you stop being funny. Maybe for a while Wood believed this too. She stayed loyal to her native Northern Lancashire until the mid-90s – imagining that her funniness was too fragile to withstand the move. In truth, there's never been anything too commonplace about her life. A few years ago, after her mother died, she drove up to the family home to help her three elder sisters clear it out. "I remembered how jealous I used to be of all the other kids that lived in normal suburbs. We were in this bungalow on top of a hill which used to be a children's holiday home. It was comprised of four large rooms, which my mother divided into smaller rooms with bits of old plywood. It wasn't like we were destitute – my father sold insurance – but they never spent it on things like fitted carpets or other material comforts. My mother also had a thing for junk shops – so much so that they had a van in which to put in anything that she saw. She'd stop at a bomb site, find a piece of timber and go, "Oh this is a good piece of wood!" And it would live in the house with us. When I arrived after she'd died, I found my sisters despairing in the kitchen next to thirteen rusting Thermos flasks on the table.”

Wood says that there was no point having friends over, given the sheer fuss her parents would make about it. So between 11 and 15, she stayed in and learned to play the piano. By the time the 60s finished so had Victoria Wood's childhood. “I wasn't a child of the 60s. Not musically at any rate.' she concedes. Maybe this explains the old-fashioned end-of-tone of her songs. Indeed, in 1977, she almost became a seaside entertainer. Having moved into a flat in Morecambe with future husband Geoffrey, the DHSS told her that she would no longer be able to claim benefit. They found her a job entertaining children on Morecambe beach and – terrified at the prospect – she signed off rather than go through with it. "Ever since then, I've avoided having a proper job."

          Until the late 80s, when As Seen On TV regularly beamed her into people’s living rooms, she says she only had the kind of fame "where I got mistaken for Pam Ayres." Her well-documented eating disorder and a tendency to professional envy dissipated with the help of therapy: "I used to watch other comedians and wonder why they had a series, and where their career was in relation to mine, what their ratings were."


What changed?

"I just stopped noticing. As for the eating, if you're emotionally more comfortable, it's easier to change your eating habits, because in my experience, people's difficulties with food are because they've got some sort of emptiness that they're trying to fill.' She's still uncomfortable about the idea of going to a restaurant – 'partly because I had an eating problem, but mainly because don't like sitting there for a long time having things brought. It just doesn't appeal to me at all. "

For all the many celebrities who harp on about self-improvement and remembering how to be humble, Wood strikes you as someone who has just got on with it by working hard and having a good old go at understanding who she is. Intrinsic to this understanding seems to be her embracing of Quakerhood. "Well, a quaker meeting involves sitting in silence," she explains, "which actually, is just lovely. And then, if anyone is moved to speak, they speak. But that doesn't happen often. It's a wonderful thing.

What might someone say, typically?

"They might say something like, "I've got a friend who is ill and I'd like everyone to think about that for a minute. Sometimes it might be something really quite banal. It's hard to explain. When people speak, they just feel utterly compelled – it's like they don't really want to but they have to."

If her marriage to Durham is anything to go by, a Quaker marriage is a strong marraige. Theirs has weathered several potential flashpoints: he also overcame an eating disorder, there were the DHSS years, a brief period when, as The Great Soprendo, his fame overtook hers, the arrival of their children and their move south. More recently, there was the nervous exhaustion she suffered whilst writing dinnerladies and a period earlier this year when he had a hernia and she had to go an emergency hysterectomy following the discovery of fibroids [non-malignant tumours] on her womb. "There's never a point where our marriage feels perfect. We are always trying to work it out."

Do you think there's a point where people stop trying?

"Maybe there's a point where some people just back off slightly, emotionally, when things get difficult. It's hard to keep all your emotional energy concentrated on that one person, which I can't say I've done all along, but with every passing year my marriage becomes more interesting to me as well."

She’s conspicuously devoid of any affectation or faux humility. Asked what she remembers most about the day she received her OBE, she merely says that it was very long – "we had to go straight from a carol service that our daughter was singing at, and an old friend of mine who also happened to be receiving hers that day, had to teach me to curtsey in the queue for the toilets. We were then all herded off into separate enclosures, a bit like sheep waiting to be dipped. The main thing I remember was lollipop ladies and milkmen, also there to receive their awards, going "Waheyyy! You'll get a good sketch out of this!" And I was thinking: How will I? How can this apply to anything else in my life?" "It's the kind of thing that people say," I suggest.

"It's true," she smiles. "It is the kind of thing people say." Seemingly, being spotted by strangers is something she's never quite known how to deal with. The supermarket is dealt with by Geoffrey – "he gets up at 6am and drives to Sainsburys in Camden". Rather more unavoidable was the trip to hospital. "I was in so much pain when I went in that I wasn't thinking of anything else. The next morning I had to be trundled round the hospital and they park you in a wheelchair in the corridor and, at this point, everyone was ogling. I"m not one to complain, but in that instance, it was much worse being famous than not being famous."