“She won’t be funny, you know,” said our executive producer.
I had booked Victoria Wood, who died yesterday, as a guest on a chat show I was producing for ITV, starring Jimmy Tarbuck (about which I have written before).
She was a late booking, the first guest on the first show in 1996. Two days before the live recording, EastEnders star and Carry-On favourite Barbara Windsor had pulled out, and none of the other guests was big enough to be promoted to the top spot.
Elaine, our researcher, had a passing acquaintance with Victoria Wood, with whom she had worked previously. I begged Elaine, and Elaine used up her entire stock of showbiz credibility to beg Victoria: “Please rescue our show. It’s a personal request from Jimmy who is a huge fan.”
(Not strictly true. Tarby was a fan – who isn’t? – but had no idea of the difficulties were were having booking guests to his show with a tiny guest budget).
Graham Stuart, the executive producer (now Graham Norton’s producer, so he knows a bit about talk shows) delivered the pessimistic verdict on our booking. “She’s only funny doing ‘material’ and she’s not going to do her material for £100 and her bus fare.”
I prayed he’d be wrong. He wasn’t.
Poor Victoria. On the night, she was pleasant enough, but had the definite look of someone who was there because she was doing a favour for someone. Far too well-mannered to give monosyllabic answers, she instead engaged in pleasant chit-chat with Jimmy Tarbuck who did his considerable best to make the whole thing funny. He fed her lines, and she batted them away, he asked her the sort of questions to which virtually every comedian has stock replies: who were your comedy influences, what makes you laugh, what was your worst ever gig? No dice.
She was unfailingly polite, nice…and unfunny. Afterwards, Tarby was baffled. A born laughter-maker, he had – has – a wealth of jokes and one-liners with which he could fill the gaps, but he couldn’t understand why he was having to do all the work.
In the edit, we somehow extracted a vaguely diverting five minutes from an excruciating 15 minute interview.
I read in an obituary this morning that she was considered a little dour off-stage. This seems a bit harsh. But comics are seldom funny all the time; the ones that try to be are – in my experience – very tiresome.
So because I think she was hilarious and gifted, here are a couple of clips. The first is Victoria Wood’s song, “Let’s Do It”. I thought I was the only one who loved this song. Turns out everyone does. I would have known, only middle-aged men don’t often get to talk about how much they like the comic songs of Victoria Wood. Listening to it on the news last night, it reminded me of Noel Coward’s song, “Nina from Argentina”. Both have fabulously complicated lyrics, and both are – essentially – about the same subject: lack of desire.
I’ve got a book of Victoria Wood’s songs somewhere. In the foreword, she professes that she hates performing “Let’s Do It” – far too many words to remember! Can’t say I blame her, but it’s great fun to listen to.