Here’s a big book, the authorised biography of Victoria Wood that I’ve only just got round to despite it being one of my books I’d wished I’d read in 2020 (still only up to 70% of this list). I think I’ve been a little nervous of this really hoping that Rees gets the balance right between the career and public persona and the very different private person and juggling also the humour of her work and zest for life with the inevitable sadness at reading of a life which ended too soon.
I don’t know of the author, but as a journalist, he seemed to have a professional but not close relationship with Victoria Wood in her latter years. I was heartened by this book appearing on a number of Best Book Of The Year lists and one description of it was that it was “impeccable”. It certainly is thorough. This is the definitive biography of Victoria Wood, no one else need bother. Rees has had access to all the right people and material and herein is included really all we would need to know.
He does indicate at the start that Victoria Wood was collecting material for a memoir, making audio tapes which he had access to. It would have been fascinating to see how such a private person would have approached such a publication but it is unlikely that it would have been as thorough and probing as this biography.
It was so important to me that Rees got this right as Victoria Wood (1953-2016) is, in my opinion, the greatest British comedian. I don’t think a single day goes by without at least one of her lines coming into my head. Whilst reading this book I dug out a DVD of her award-winning “As Seen On TV” and was staggered to see how many of these were almost low-key asides in their original setting rather than fanfared jokes; often said by characters who were not central in the sketch. This shows how good her writing was on every level. And, despite this genius, not everything she did hit home, the same viewing showed that some of the early songs at piano have not dated well and yet, for many years, this was her bread and butter and the first flush of fame came when she performed comedy songs on 70’s TV talent show “New Faces” and topical songs on “That’s Life”.
As a shy, private person it must have been difficult for Victoria as fans felt that they had such a personal bond with her. She tried to keep a brave face on in public but people could find her prickly and taciturn away from the limelight and even when in it. I lived in Highgate when she did, would often see her around and was one time rendered speechless by her when teaching as she appeared in my classroom on a school visit for prospective parents (both of her children attended the Primary School I worked at). This was a school which had more than its fair share of notable parents but this was the first time I felt myself floundering in presence of celebrity. With someone as good as she was at analysing speech I felt my words being analysed as I spoke to the class, when, in reality, even if she was listening, she was just a mum looking around.
Rees gets this private/public person split very well. She was demanding to work for, rewriting and striving for perfection and insisting on actors being word-perfect and not deviating from her script. She was driven, as indeed she had to be, at the time there was no woman writing comedy in this way, there was much resistance to female led female written comedy on British television (“As Seen On TV” predated the first French & Saunders TV series by three years). She was a pioneer, who achieved so many firsts in her career. Jasper Rees is also strong in celebrating this, it made me want to go back and experience her work again, always a good marker for a biography. What I don’t think I need to do is read any more about her life as it is all here- the years of struggling after the New Faces appearance, her marriage, the children, divorce and final illness set alongside the comedy magic she produced. This book deserves my five star rating.
Let’s Do It: Authorised Biography Of Victoria Wood was published by Trapeze in hardback in 2020 and paperback in 2021. Since then Jasper Rees has put together a collection of unseen sketches, songs and other memorabilia in his November 2021 publication “Victoria Wood Unseen On TV” which I am adding to my To Be Read list.