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English comedy as we know it died with Victoria Wood

John Stillwell/PA

English comedy as we know it died with Victoria Wood

John Stillwell/PA

If 2016, this year of almost relentless celebrity deaths, has taught us anything, it’s that YouTube has now become an invaluable mourning resource. The shock of Victoria Wood dying earlier this week sent me, as so many others, online in search of clips, sketches, songs, lines and gags from her incomparable, pioneering career, and then posting them on social media.

Good comedy is always about togetherness, it offers comfort and balm in the shape of shared experience. Wood knew that more than most, which is why the collectively exchanged reminiscence of how she made us laugh is as fitting a tribute as any obituary. Laughing is the most appropriate way imaginable of responding to the widespread sense of grief and loss prompted by the unexpected and gutting news.

There are so many reasons why she mattered so much. To anyone who appreciated English comic traditions, she was both their inheritor and their moderniser. To the last few remaining dullards who bleated “women aren’t funny”, her work was the most spectacular riposte imaginable. To connoisseurs of comedic language, her assured command of the humorous musicality of diction was unparalleled, though not unprecedented – her writing has been compared to Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, Alan Bennett, George Formby, Hylda Baker, Joe Orton, Harold Pinter, Joyce Grenfell, Cole Porter, Ken Dodd and Les Dawson. The fact that such a diverse and unlikely roll-call made perfect sense is testament to the magnitude of her achievement.

Carving her own path

There were many women in comedy before her, but none who dictated their own terms with such determination. She made an early impact on the ITV talent show New Faces and the BBC’s consumer magazine That’s Life, but her career then faltered. There were no formats she fitted, no slots for her to fill. As she told Michael Parkinson in a later interview, programme-makers recognised her talent, but baulked at giving her autonomy and room to grow: “We don’t know how to place you … You don’t look right … I was always being told ‘no’.”

Eventually that risk was taken, firstly on ITV’s Wood and Walters and then BBC’s Victoria Wood: As Seen On TV. The latter show, with its fusion of solo stand-up routines, pin-sharp send-ups of televisual conventions, character comedy rooted in a warmly-observed savouring of everyday absurdities, and those bittersweet, plangent fake mini-documentaries about gallant no-hopers such as the cross-channel swimmer or the new student overawed by university life, secured her career and established her unmistakable voice.

One of Wood’s recurring themes was television itself, which as a child of the 1950s was her most enduring reference point – part comfort blanket, part background noise, constant source of inspiration. Many comedians have ridiculed TV, but none did so with as much deep familiarity and affectionate exasperation. Acorn Antiques was the most celebrated example, taking knowing aim at the cheapskate melodramatics of low-budget soaps. But even funnier was the malicious continuity announcer played to quasi-Thatcherite perfection by Susie Blake on As Seen On TV. Blake paused in her task of reading out birthday greetings to children to glance at a viewer’s sent-in photograph and confide: “I think Mummy must be a little bit common, judging by the sun lounger”.

TV and the nation

What Wood knew about television was that it offers the daily social glue that, at least until recent multi-channel fragmentation, held the nation together. As fellow viewers, we recognised the same generic tropes and codes that she did, responding through our laughter to her acuity and skill in hanging them out to dry. She remained a fan, peppering the dialogue in her sitcom Dinnerladies with recognition-sparking references to small-screen personalities, texts and histories – Pinky and Perky, On the Buses, Charlie Caroli, and of course, Coronation Street.

As a couch potato and a woman from Lancashire, Coronation Street was always going to loom large for Wood. Not only did As Seen On TV include a sketch saluting the crackling dialogue and matriarchal dynamic of that soap’s Ena Sharples years, but the female ensemble cast of Dinnerladies contained several actresses who either had appeared on the Weatherfield cobbles or who would do so later, setting up resonant echoes between the two shows.

Her love of popular TV (and a consequent fury at its misuse and dismantling) also fuelled other scripts. Over to Pam (1989) was uncharacteristically unforgiving in its character assassination of a diva talk-show host (“a heat-seeking missile in slingbacks”). Pat and Margaret (1994) was scathing about undue sentiment-milking on shows such as the Cilla Black vehicle Surprise Surprise. By 2000, Victoria Wood With All The Trimmings envisaged a dystopian televisual future comprised of proliferating micro-channels (including BBC Upmarket and BBC Wartime) where excessive specialisation had replaced one-nation broadcasting with the blinkered pursuit of niche audiences.

Over to Pam.

That future is now our present, so it is perhaps unsurprising that Wood showed an increasing interest in the cultural past. Her finest recent work was Eric and Ernie, the 2011 BBC film about the early career of comedy duo Morecambe and Wise (for which Wood oversaw the idea, served as an executive producer, and acted in a supporting role). Both as love letter to comedic greatness and as meditation on why comedy can, like no other cultural form, tap into the veins of belonging and communality without which social cohesion is unattainable, it came from Wood’s heart. It also reiterated her own place in that long, vital, but now extinguished tradition.

Because when we shed tears at her death, we were not just crying at one individual life coming to an end, but also responding to a wider demise. English comedy as it used to be, at its best, offered a consoling embrace in a fractured world. Victoria Wood not only knew how that cultural contract worked, she embodied it, fashioning great and lasting comedy out of it at the very moment of its long, slow eclipse. With her gone that eclipse is now complete. She was the last of her comedic kind. No wonder her passing hit so hard.