The first fifteen minutes of Victoria Wood’s first ever sit com, the self-explanatory ‘dinner ladies’ seems a terrible disappointment. You’ve been here before. You know what a Victoria Wood joke sounds like. Sex, net curtains and a Gypsy Cream.
Two minutes in and the randy factory canteen manager says to his deputy Bren, Wood’s own salt-of the-earther,
“Get any at the weekend?”
“Sex? No I had to go to the launderette”
Collapse of studio audience.
“Are you too busy to have an orgasm?”
”Orgasm? I haven’t blown my nose since Wednesday.”
Hysterical roars from the women in the studio and what sounds like some of them making up for lost time. In ‘dinner ladies’ the deliveryman has “fallen off diving boards in Guernsey” and consequently is “unable to stand on coconut matting” and the poignant middle-aged handyman asserts his authority via old-fashioned values and the Dunkirk spirit of lower middle England. “My father was a desert rat, he shaved in the sand. So that toaster stays put.” It’s bungalow, semi-detached comedy of working class domestic detail. What makes you laugh is ‘Guernsey’ and ‘coconut matting’, the juxtaposition of a World War against the Nazis and where the toaster goes in the kitchen. It’s a way of elevating normal language so that it’s almost naturalistic, but not quite. Joe Orton knew how to do it, Alan Bennett still does and Victoria Wood is now a past mistress. She’s been at it for fourteen years since Victoria Wood… was first ‘Seen On TV’ in 1984. And it’s beginning to feel like a formula.
But then as you carry on watching, something dawns on you about ‘dinner ladies’. The structure may be old fashioned and familiar but the content is quite strong stuff and surprisingly post-watershed. And the point about Victoria Wood is precisely that she makes you feel comfortable and then slips material in under the guard of people who would normally be offended. In this particular case for instance, ten minutes after sex and the launderette the dinner ladies are talking about artificial insemination of lesbians by turkey baster with sperm off the Internet. It’s very funny precisely because the way she writes it, it all sounds so very ordinary. And the ordinary is her planet. So much so that most people who interview her always say she’s cosy or snug.
But in fact she’s not. She’s spiky. She’s not shy like so many of them think, just very controlled about what she lets you know. “Yes”, she agrees wholeheartedly, “I think I’m quite spiky”. “I’m naturally bolshy”, she cheerfully admits when we’re talking about the Royal Family one of whose least impressive genetic representatives turns up in episode two, “I don’t like anybody telling me what to do. Although I don’t really act it out because I don’t need to”. No she certainly doesn’t. With fistfuls of BAFTAS, two 15 night sell-out runs at the Albert Hall, the record for any performer there, and an adoring public the BBC is happy to take from her what she offers – sight unseen. This time she says, “I rang them up and said ‘Can I do a series?’ They said ‘Can we see the scripts?’ I said ‘Actually no because I haven’t written them yet. I was just asking now so you can book the studios’. It’s almost arrogant. But she’s earned it. And the way she said it, it was funny.
She looks much younger than 45. She has a girlish face but with a working mother’s lined hands, evidence of her two children with the magician Geoffrey Durham. She herself was the youngest of four and was brought up in Bury, Lancashire. Her parents sound seriously unusual. “We lived in a house on the hill with no visitors. It was very isolated. All the other girls lived in little semis with nice gardens. Our house looked like an explosion in an Oxfam shop.” Her father was in insurance but he really wanted to write rather than underwrite. He also played the piano. “They were slightly bohemian except my father had a proper job. My mother wouldn’t do things just because people did them.” Is it too flip to draw the conclusion that this childhood, one remove from the normality of her friends, made her an acute observer of her surroundings? “No it isn’t. All writers have a sense of being slightly apart. You don’t observe as well if you were in the netball team or the school play.” And being the youngest? “I think it probably makes you more competitive.” And Wood is certainly determined. Her journey to the top is encased in self-discipline. “I don’t tend to go to parties because I don’t drink. So it’s lots of people talking rubbish and I’m sober. I used to drink and talk rubbish too. But I’ve got two children and I work. If I added drinking to the pot, I’d be totally knackered.” Yes, but most of us drink nonetheless and just get exhausted.
What ‘dinner ladies’ does superbly is paint an affectionate and comic picture of working class British lives. “ I am more comfortable writing about that… and also I have deep, deep lack of interest in the middle classes, even though I am one myself.” What makes Wood laugh – and that seems to be pretty much her only bench mark – are “people who think a lot of themselves. I’m interested in them, never having been one myself. You know, anybody who thinks they’re terrible interesting“. Does she never think she is interesting? “No not particularly. But I’m doing my best.” She laughs as she does a lot. And you really have no idea if she means it or not. She’s delightful to be with but very unnerving because as she says of her stage show “I never say who I am.”
‘Dinner Ladies’ shows again just how accomplished and funny she is at being the detached observer. But now you long for her to go the next step and reveal more of herself. It would be very exciting for the audience. “Well when it’s exciting for me, I’ll do It.” she replies. Definitely spiky.