Barry and Freda
It seems to be generally agreed that in terms of cultural giants shuffling off this mortal coil, 2016 has been a peculiarly horrible year. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Ronnie Corbett, amongst many others, have left us, and now Victoria Wood has died of cancer.* Now up until last year, I used to be pretty dismissive of the outpourings of grief that grip social media whenever a famous person dies, but then in March 2015 I found myself checking twitter on my phone to discover that Terry Pratchett had died, and ended up crying on a bench outside TKMaxx, so my views on people grieving celebrities they never met have softened a little.
And today I find myself in the same position again. Not on a bench outside TKMaxx, but being moved to tears over the death of somebody I only knew through the TV screen, the stage and the written word. It’s difficult to put into words how much Victoria Wood meant to me, and probably to a whole host of other people a bit like me. She was a woman. She was Northern. She was funny. She loved to play with language. And somehow, just by existing and being brilliant, she made that an ok combination of things to be. She was, essentially, the person I wanted to be if I grew up.
She also never rested on her laurels. With most celebrities you can say ‘Oh he was an actor,’ or ‘She was a writer,’ or a musician. Victoria Wood was all of those things. She wrote sketch shows, theatre plays, sitcoms, TV dramas and musicals. She performed as a comic actor, a straight actor, a musician, a presenter and a standup comic. To be as good as she was at any one of those things would probably be enough to get you minor national treasure status. Victoria Wood was brilliant at all of them. Properly brilliant.
Her ear for dialogue was one of the best I can think of. There’s something infectiously joyful about lines like ‘I’m on fire, with desire. I could handle half the tenors in a male voice choir’ and there’s also something gloriously specific about the writing. It’s half the tenors, not all. All would be too much; half tells you something more about the curtailed ambitions at play in this relationship. And half is funnier. Don’t ask me why. It just is. It’s like how seven and eleven are funnier numbers than eight or twelve. I don’t know why. They just are.
I was really lucky to be around the place watching TV while Victoria Wood was writing. I was even lucky enough to see her stand up show live. I really hope that she knew how much joy she brought to so many people, but I realise that I never told her. I’m not really the fan-letter writing sort. It’s always struck me as being a bit weird and overly-familiar to just write to a stranger and tell them they’re awesome, but my resolution for today is to abandon that rather silly little insecurity. I don’t think it’s ever unwelcome to tell a writer, musician or performer that you think that what they do is awesome, so I’m resolving, right now, that the next time I love someone’s work as much as I loved Victoria Wood’s or Terry Pratchett’s I’m bloody well going to write to them and tell them, before 2016’s grimmest of reapers gets to them too.
In the meantime, let’s just imagine Victoria Wood singing The Ballad of Barry and Freda on the great big stage in the sky with Pratchett, Rickman and Corbett in the audience, and Bowie singing backing vocals.
*reaffirming cancer’s status, as if there was ever any doubt, as an entirely stupid and shitty disease