Behind a pained smile – Victoria Wood

Victoria Wood

When Victoria Wood died in April this year, millions felt the loss deeply. It was announced to a shocked nation that she had died after ‘a short but brave battle with cancer’, and the outpouring of grief began almost immediately.

“There was a sense that it was not just the unexpectedness of her death that triggered such an overwhelming reaction, but the fact that it was Victoria Wood who had died,” her biographer Neil Brandwood writes in a new and updated edition of his original 2002 biography. “With such an intimate understanding of their lives, people felt she knew them and they knew her. It was almost as if a close friend or relative passed away.”

Neil Brandwood, who like Victoria is from Bury but now lives in Sussex, was a Victoria Wood fan, interviewing her a number of times during her career in entertainment. In the 376-page book, he chronicles her rise from singing in pubs, through a lucky break on BBC Midlands, through ITV’s New Faces and successful comedy series such as Wood and Walters, Acorn Antiques, As Seen on TV, and Dinnerladies, along with bittersweet dramas such as Pat and Margaret and That Day We Sang.

But it’s the unhappiness of Victoria’s strange and eccentric childhood that is possibly the most fascinating aspect for fans familiar with the comedienne’s work.

Brandwood says in his Author’s Note: “During my research I spoke with several people whose memories of Victoria did not tally with her established public persona. This helped to give an honest picture of her. Victoria’s imperfections were part of her attraction; her faults and mistakes helped make her more human and therefore more relatable. To portray her as a cuddly, working-class Lancastrian who chuckled her way through life dispensing one-liners and down-to-earth Northern common sense as she went, would be to misrepresent her.”

Brandwood tells how Victoria’s life was certainly Lancastrian but decidedly not working class. When a journalist once asked her if the family holidayed in Blackpool, she retorted: “What do you take me for? We used to go to Vienna.”

Even before Victoria was born at Hollyrood Maternity Home, Prestwich, on May 19th 1953, her family was upwardly mobile. They had a comfortable and spacious terrace house, one of a block of four set back from Tottington Road, thanks to dad Stanley’s occupation as an insurance underwriter, visiting clients in his Austin Ruby car. Stanley, originally from Salford, had worked his way up from a mill lad and was naval officer during the Second World War. He was also a talented musician and writer, but never risked making it his profession even though it occupied his spare time.

Stanley’s Bradford-born wife – who was born Ellen Mape but preferred to call herself Helen – was determined to rise above her working-class origins, and people often found her cold and hard. Victoria said she felt that ‘neglected’ wasn’t too strong a word for her childhood. She said her sisters treated her badly, she suffered bullying during her miserable schooldays and her mother never fully acknowledged her achievements.

Her childhood was one of isolation, which increased when her parents moved to Birtle Edge House, a former children’s charity holiday home on the moors high above Bury. “We lived in a very strange way,” Victoria recalled. We all lived in separate rooms. We weren’t the most demonstrative of families. In fact, the idea was to be on your own as much as you could. We used to get our meals and retreat to our rooms.”

The family did, however, visit the cinema and the theatre, and seeing the legendary Joyce Grenfell perform at Buxton made a huge impression on the young Victoria. She recalled: “I can remember much of the dialogue even now. Grenfell was terribly observant and her voice was superb.”

No-one could have guessed then that the chubby shy girl described by a schoolmate as ‘funny but not funny ha-ha’ would become one of Britain’s – and not just the North’s – best-loved entertainers.

When she turned 60, she felt she was in her full stride and declared: “There’s still so much more I want to do.” She had not ruled out a return to stand-up and, in the last year of her life, she began writing a film. When she died on the eve of the Queen’s birthday, newspaper headlines told of her ‘secret battle’ with cancer, but those who knew her were quick to point out that it wasn’t ‘secret’, it was personal; it was Victoria’s way.

She had once said: “Life’s not fair is it? Some of us drink champagne fast lane, and some of us eat our sandwiches by the loose chippings on the A597.”

Final comment from her biographer: “Future years might have seen her reach even greater heights of creativity, brilliance and success, delighting theatre, television and cinema audiences with her unique gifts. Loved and admired in equal measure, Victoria has left an unfillable void.”

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