My first part was as a comedy char in a production of The Rising Generation by Ann Jellico. This was in the summer of 1968 and I was fifteen. It wasn’t till about ten years later that I realised that she wasn’t called Angelico. It was a wonderful summer, spent rolling around on dusty floorboards in baseball boats and jeans from Milletts, with the other members of the Rochdale Youth Theatre Workshop, doing improvisations and rehearsing plays. I was a prompting wolf in Dracula and spent my offstage moments squinting down a cornflake packet muzzle trying to read the script.
I did all sorts of other exciting things, like fall in love, and drink pints of mild, and eat pudding and chips on a tray with gravy, the only meal I miss now I’m a vegetarian. I spent all my spare time there till I left home to go to university in Birmingham, and I think I learnt more there than anywhere.
University was a culture shock. All the other students on my course seemed to be tall and blonde and beautiful and know about Stanislavski. Everyone was having sex the entire time as well, so there was all the worry of making sure you had left the house in clean underwear as well as fretting about pronouncing Chekov.
I lived in a bedsitter in a house full of mad people. I shared a Baby Belling cooker on the landing which took half and hour to heat a tin of soup. I could never wait that long and used to drink it cold and then hang my stomach over the gas fire.
The woman on the same landing used to ask me to read her medicine labels. ‘Two teaspoons daily,’ I told her helpfully one morning. Once on the bus I realised it had been a bottle of Baby Bio.
I got an audition for New Faces while I was still at university. This was a very high-rated talent show and I saw it as my passport to stardom. While rehearsing the first heat I signed an exclusive management contract with a certifiably insane ex-band leader from Hove. I never read the contract because I thought it would look like I didn’t trust him, which I didn’t, and to this day I have no idea what it said.
After New Faces my career didn’t so much take off as reverse into the departure lounge, as every offer of work was turned down by the barmy band leader and I sat in my bedsitter eating tins of mince and feeling uneasy.
The next few years were a mixture of television appearances and sticky interviews with the dole office. They couldn’t understand why I was singing on That’s Life one week and signing on for me eleven pounds the next.
ATV did a song and sketch show the summer after I’d been on New Faces, starring other winners like Marti Caine and Lenny Henry. It was one hundred and twenty-five pounds a week, a big improvement on eleven. When I met Marti the first thing she said to me was, ‘The money’s rubbish.’ Lenny was sixteen and terribly enthusiastic. He had great long legs and kept knocking chairs over and laughing.
I felt bad because I was too big for most of the costumes. They kept riffling through the racks and sighing, ‘If only you’d lose two stone you could wear this of Anna Massey’s.’ I never did.
The sketch show was watched by less people than tuned into Some Aspects of Shrimps on the Open University and it was back to the dole office. They gave Marti her own show and Lenny had a job on tour with the Black and White Minstrels. I was saved from a life of tinned mince by comedian John Dowie who took me on tour with him. It wasn't a big tour, in fact we were home by Wednesday, but he knew more than me, which was handy. We didn’t trash any hotel rooms, but I think he fused a hairdryer in Swansea.
But I was out of work mainly. Then I met Geoffrey. Then we were both out of work. Then we moved to Morecambe. Which meant we could be out of work and have a large selection of old people to queue behind in the Post Office. We tried to pretend that living near people called Winnie who hated us was fun.
Geoffrey got a job on the end of the pier, in an Olde Tyme Music-Hall. I have noticed the more ‘E’s and ‘Y’s there are in a show like that, the more likely it is to have an actress from Surrey singing, ‘Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way’. Geoffrey did a very good magic act but unfortunately it came after the entire audience had left the theatre to get back to their boarding houses for cocoa. If you ever have to write a thesis on what killed the music-hall, the answer is cocoa.
I did a revue at the Bush Theatre in Shepherd’s Bush and someone asked me to write a play. I didn’t know it was supposed to be difficult so I wrote one, Talent. It was done at the Crucible Theatre Studio in 1978 and then at the ICA in London. It was set in a seedy backstage room with a dirty carpet. We had to put a notice up to stop the cleaners hoovering it.
Peter Eckersley, a producer at Granada, bought Talent, and we did it on television in 1979. He was a wonderfully clever and funny man. I did two more plays with him, and the pilot show of Wood and Walters, and then he died. It got too difficult to work with him after that and we parted company.
I had another play on at the Crucible in 1980, Good Fun, about a cystitis rally. Julie Walters played a sort of Avon lady and did an exciting dance number in a shocking pink suit. I was described in one review as ‘dominating the stage like a witty tank’. I was thrilled.
I’ve toured regularly since 1984 and have many happy memories. I think it was Southampton where a woman asked for her money back at the end of the first half. ‘That’s not Sooty,’ she said. And the Beck Theatre, Hayes, where the manager leant against the dressing room door while I was making up, saying, ‘I thought you’d have sold more tickets than this, it’s very disappointing.’
I had a baby in 1988, which proved my theory that stretch pants alone do not make an effective contraceptive. I was planning to eat my placenta, but wasn’t sure how that squared with my vegetarianism, so settled for toast. Motherhood brought many joys, but catching sight of the underneath of my neck in the mirror of the Tommee Tippee Activity Centre wasn’t one of them.
I toured with both my children when they were babies, and still now when I go into a hotel room my first thought is to put the pot pourri on top of the wardrobe. Once when my little boy had chicken pox and wouldn’t sleep, I took him in the bar with me disguised as a handbag.
I have met many interesting people in my job, and also many celebrities. Dolly Parton was extremely charming and sang live in the studio beautifully. Of course I wasn’t really listening, I was trying to see if she’d had any ribs removed. It’s not an operation I would fancy, though I would quite like to have some old cardboard boxes taken out of my lobby. I don’t suppose this is available on the National Health.
I am forty-three this year, and am waiting to see whether this is the year my bosoms will hit the floor and bounce right up again. This may be the year I go to the make-up counter for skin cream and find I have gone straight from ‘Greasy’ to ‘Ageing’.
And of course for the last twenty years I have been struggling to get to know my husband, the mysterious Geoffrey Durham, the Audrey Hepburn of the conjuring world. I could have done it without him, but it would have been crap.
© Victoria Wood
Wood, Victoria. Chunky. London: Methuen, 1996.
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