THE death of Victoria Wood today, after a short battle with cancer, aged just 62, robbed showbusiness of one of its most versatile and gifted performers, and the audience of a national treasure.
Not only a comic who could sell out the country’s biggest venues, Wood was also a screenwriter, producer and composer. Her big brother Chris put it best: she was, he said, one of the brightest talents of her generation.
Her passing was met with shock as much as sadness. An intensely private person, few had known of her illness. She died at home in Highgate, north London, surrounded by family.
Despite her mainstream success across BBC shows such as As Seen On TV, Dinnerladies and Victoria Wood With All The Trimmings, she never abandoned her northernness, on screen or off.
Born in the north Manchester suburb of Prestwich and educated at the nearby Bury Grammar School, she made her name as a purveyor of cheeky and mildly satirical songs, first on the ITV talent show New Faces and then on Esther Rantzen’s Sunday night favourite, That’s Life.
At one time, she and her husband Geoffrey Durham, also known by his stage name The Great Soprendo, lived in the village of Halton East, near Skipton. The couple, who had two children, divorced in 2002 but were said to have remained close.
Wood was one of the most-honoured performers of her generation, winning a mantelpiece of Baftas for her comedies and her more recent, serious work including Housewife, 49, an adaptation of the World War Two diaries of one Nella Last.
Yet her career did not always have such a stellar trajectory. Her first comedy series with her long-time collaborator Julie Walters, made at Granada in 1982, flopped, and even the appeal of That’s Life began to pall eventually. Her act was so untypical of the pre-alternative comedy of the Seventies and early Eighties that producers had little idea how to use her.
It was another Granada executive, the late Peter Eckersley, who gave her wings as a writer, adapting her play Talent, originally produced at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, for the small screen. Eckersley’s wife, the actress Anne Reid, became another of Wood’s collaborators.
Wood’s brother, Chris Foote Wood, 75, acknowledged her early setbacks, and put her eventual triumphs down to determination.
He said: “It wasn’t just that Victoria was hugely talented in so many different fields, she was also outstanding in her tremendous, single-minded drive and determination to pursue her chosen career. Success did not come easily to Victoria, and it was only after years of struggle that she achieved her well-deserved national acclaim.”
Rantzen also paid tribute to Wood, saying she admired her at the start of her career and had done ever since.
“She did a one-woman show for Childline where I felt hugely privileged to interview her and she told the story of her life with such wit. She just held us all enchanted for a whole evening,” Rantzen recalled.
“I think she is one of our greatest comic writers and performers, but she could also deal with serious issue as well, and she’s a huge loss.”
Her influence on two generations of comedy performers was not lost on the entertainment community tonight, with fellow comic Jenny Eclair tweeting: “All of us women in comedy owe a huge debt of gratitude to Victoria - she paved the way.”
Wood was also a philanthropist and visited Ethiopia and Zimbabwe for the charity Comic Relief.
She made her own factual programmes, too, including Victoria’s Empire, about the vestiges of the British Empire.
But it was as a comedy performer that the public loved her best. In 1993 she performed a record-breaking 15 nights at the Royal Albert Hall as part of a six-month tour of the country. Only Peter Kay and Ken Dodd could fill so many seats and they both counted themselves as her fans.