For those of us of a certain age, and particularly certain musical tastes, 2016 has been a year of surprising deaths.
Harper Lee was the one that really hit me first. To Kill a Mockingbird changed how I saw the world, and Atticus Finch was my childhood idol. Then so many of us were sad to lose David Bowie, though I mainly felt a joy at what a splendid life he had led. And I had only just started writing this post in tribute to one of my writing heroes, Victoria Wood, when I heard of the sad death of the artist formerly known as Prince.
Many of the people who have inspired me aren't around any more now. Bill Hicks, Christopher Hitchens, Carl Sagan, Ian Dury, to name just a few who passed away in my lifetime, and many more (Nick Drake, George Orwell, Richard Feynman, Lenny Bruce) who died before I was born. A sign of age perhaps, or as a friend of mine said recently, a cue that we need to step up and be brilliant now. No more looking to our heroes to do it for us.
Victoria Wood had a special place in my heart though, and her death has continued to sit on my mind, so much so that I have a need to write some of it down, as a record of why she was so important to me and why I think her work matters. As I turn my attention more seriously towards writing as a profession, I find my admiration for other, better writers is growing. The more I grapple to find the right words in my own work, the more I find myself humbled by the words of other writers, and even more acutely aware of the hard work that goes into writing something truthful, beautiful and memorable.
Now she's gone, I realise that of all the comedy writers I've admired, Victoria Wood stands out, for reasons which I've not entirely unpacked yet.
Perhaps it was her versatility. I grew up listening to her stand up routines, and she taught me what a real variety act could be, blending characters, observations, asides, music and whimsy into a surprisingly powerful package. Her delivery was immaculate. No-one could get as many laughs as she could from a line as simple as "He's taking me to a creperie" or the word "Kimberly". Her confidence as a performer, a confidence in her words and how they should be heard, was always there from the very beginning of her career.
As a child I watched her series of short TV plays, sadly rarely shown now, over and over again, admiring the variety of settings she could master, the detail of the characters, the killer lines hiding discreetly in the scripts. The awful package holiday travellers of "We'd Quite Like to Apologise"; putting the hell in health farm in "Mens Sana in Thingummy Doodah"; flailing around in a countryside full of yuppies in "Val De Ree (Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha)". They weren't sitcoms - though she showed with Dinnerladies that she could do that too - but true comic plays in the mould of the greatest television comedy writers. They only made six though. She mastered the form, and moved on. As she put it: "I'm always trying to change what I do, and make it different."
Perhaps it was her heart that I admired. Sometimes her work could stray into sentiment, but the affection was always there to see in her writing. From her first appearance on New Faces you could see the wry smile and strong sense of place and people, and a genuine, big-hearted attempt to share something and be understood. I have a lot of time for biting satire, but I admired that she didn't need to be cruel to be funny. She reminded us that comedy isn't just about mocking people; it's about understanding people. The old couple sat in their car at the seaside, suddenly transported to the Taj Mahal ("well it's quite nice but I think it would look better with a tax disc and two windscreen wipers"); the girls on their big night out; her "friend" Kimberly who's "really really tall". Real people, talking in almost real language about boring, silly, normal things.
Her writing was grounded in the strangeness and loneliness of being a person. The hope and the pathos of time passing, people stuck in ruts, watching their lives happen to them. "My life seems completely grey, bleak and pointless," says one man. "Yes, well, sometimes that's God's way of getting you to enjoy Gardener's World," comes the reply. This is comedy about people, for people. She wasn't trying to look clever; she was trying to share what she'd noticed, in the hope we'd noticed it too. "There's no exclusivity in her humour, but it's not dumbed down either," and Johnny Vegas once put it. She listened to people, and that made her writing so much more acute and truthful. She listened to people, because she cared about people.
Perhaps it's a northern thing. I was in Huddersfield the day she died, and it was a timely reminder of her Prestwich origins, the "northernness" in her work that is hard to define and even harder to ignore. She once said that it was very important for her to be from somewhere, and her rootedness was part of what made her work so accessible. Everyone's from somewhere, after all. It's hard to imagine now that she was criticised early in her career for being "too Northern". When her character in Pat and Margaret is described as "an overweight northern waitress with all the sophisticated allure of an airline salad," it's clear snobbery was all too familiar to her. She wasn't saccharine about her roots, but she carried them with her - and she respected her culture enough to give it a good kicking.
I suspect it will be her deftness with dialogue that will be remembered. So many of her lines straddled the mundane and the ridiculous. She could mock the innocent stupidity of youth ("Where are you in the menstrual cycle?" "Um, Taurus.") or equally pinpoint the detachment of the upper classes ("You see those big brown things outside..." "Trees?" "That's it."). Nobody could escape her magnificent ear. The missed meanings, the silliness, the sense that someone, somewhere, has probably said that. This is reality, ever so slightly exaggerated, and all the more unsettling for being so very nearly normal. Her lines can't be stolen because they are so completely hers. She showed that there is comedy in every detail, if you just listen properly. The one-liners and the sketches will circulate for a long time, perhaps forever. Two soups, hens in the skirting board, Mrs Overall, Kimberly - these are part of British comedy history now, and are unlikely to be forgotten.
Most of all, though, it's her work rate that I admired. Many years ago, I heard Stephen Fry present a Women in Film and Television award to Emma Thompson, and I've never forgotten what he said in his introduction for her, that she had "a natural born genius for bloody hard work". Victoria Wood was a writer in that mould. Her work rate was so high that her scripts were as close to perfect as anyone could get them, every word sweated over, every moment carefully chosen. The precision of her writing, the economy of her words, the musicality of her pacing; PG Wodehouse would have been proud of many of her comic lines, and there is no higher praise than that for a comedy writer. As Andrew Dunn put it, "she crams so much into her scripts, every episode you could watch two or three times before you've realised everything that's in it."
This was not just about entertainment. This was about telling people's stories, about conveying important things to the people around her. It was about sweating over whether a pink wafer is funnier than a garribaldi. This, to her, was the work. As she once put it in a BBC interview:
So that's what I got from her. A realisation that being as good as Victoria Wood means working as bloody hard as Victoria Wood. And even then, I still won't be as good.
She will be missed. She can still sing us a song, though, to help us cope with 2016, the year of surprising celebrity deaths. Here's to life, whatever the hell it's about.