Victoria Wood Comedy Genius - her life and work by Chris Foote Wood is published by The Memoir Club at £15 + £2.75 P & P. Advance copies can be ordered via
REVIEW - DAILY MAIL Saturday 8 October
Stanley Wood was a handsome ex-naval officer whose diverse gifts as a scriptwriter, author, producer and pianist foreshadowed his youngest daughter Victoria’s supreme talents as an entertainer.
He also had a northerner’s predisposition towards bluntness. A caustic entry in his journal for September 7, 1969 records, ‘V (Victoria) fatter than ever and has more spots. For breakfast Vicky had toast thickly spread with jam and two pieces? Then lunch 30 minutes later. I calculate she watches the telly for eight hours.’
He also comments unfavourably on an early boyfriend of Victoria’s and observes that any children they have will be like ‘balloons.’
Should such censorious private musings about the 16-year-old Victoria Wood, who went on to become one of the nation’s best loved and most garlanded comedians — embracing singing, song writing and acting with equal deftness — and who died six months ago, ever have been made public? Should we be privy to her father’s barbed remarks about her teenage over-eating; her insular, sedentary lifestyle; her over-weight boyfriends?
The eldest of Victoria’s three siblings, her only brother Chris Foote Wood, 75, has this week defended his decision to publish excerpts from their father’s private diaries in a soon-to-be published book, Victoria Wood Comedy Genius: Her Life And Work.
He has written a biography which offers extraordinary insights into the bizarre upbringing of his famous sister, who died aged 62, from cancer; a woman who guarded her personal privacy so closely that only a tiny coterie of her immediate family — Chris was not among them — even knew she was ill.
Chris, a journalist, broadcaster, author and former politician, says: ‘I’ve been castigated for saying Victoria was an unhappy teenager, that she spent her time in her room eating; that she got overweight and depressed. But I’m just repeating what she’s said publicly herself. She said in an interview for Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 2007 that she was overweight and miserable in her teens.’
Actually, Victoria went further, revealing the depth of her desolation and isolation when she was at the fee-paying Bury Grammar School for Girls: ‘I went under. I was a mess, a misfit. I didn’t have any friends, let alone try to be funny. I didn’t do any work, didn’t have clean clothes and didn’t wash.
‘If I didn’t have any money, I’d steal from people and if I hadn’t done my homework I’d steal someone else’s. I was envious of all the groups: the horsey group, the girls who went out with boys, the clever ones. Looking back, I feel really sorry for that little girl.’ Chris comments that father Stanley did not confine his scathing remarks to Victoria: ‘My father wrote cruel things about all four of his children; also amusing and kind comments. He made fun of us all.
‘I hope Victoria’s story will inspire other young people who might feel lonely and unhappy as she did, to make a success of their lives.
‘She left the most fantastic legacy of work and the tragedy is, she had so much more to give. I’m one of her biggest fans.’
Indeed, Victoria Wood left a dazzling comic bequest to the nation. She still holds the record for the most sell-out shows for a solo performer.
She also combined this prodigious creative output with motherhood, and was married for 20 years to Geoffrey Durham, the magician The Great Soprendo, with whom she had two children, Henry, 23 and Grace, 27, whose privacy she strenuously guarded.
Responding to criticism that he has disregarded their feelings, Chris says: ‘It’s totally untrue. I wrote twice to them, said I’d been asked to write a book and offered them the chance to be involved. I asked them to get in touch if they had any concerns. They didn’t respond.
‘I’ve been asked: “Did you get permission?” But when was a law passed decreeing you had to have permission to write about your sister?’
He’s also keen to point out that he is not doing it for the money: all proceeds will be donated to ‘charities close to Victoria’s heart’, although he hasn’t decided which ones yet.
It cannot be denied that the insight Chris gives into the eccentric upbringing of the Wood family is tantalising. Stan and Nellie Wood had four children: Chris, born in 1940, Penelope, who arrived five years later, Rosalind, born in 1950, and Victoria, born in 1953.
Because of the relatively large age gaps between them, the children became self-contained and self-reliant. ‘We weren’t a convivial family who gathered together for evenings in the sitting room. We all retreated to our own bedrooms,’ says Chris. Chris, 13 years older than Victoria, only spent five years living with her in the family home before he left for university.
He insists that there was a sharp disparity between Victoria’s down-to-earth northern girl image and her affluent middle class upbringing.
‘She was very conscious of the “Victoria Wood Brand”, which was that of a working-class girl — which she never was,’ he says.
‘By the time she was four our parents could afford to live in a very big house in the country, overlooking a golf course and the Irwell Valley near Bury.
‘Victoria used to refer to it as a bungalow, which strictly speaking it was. But it had been a convalescent holiday home for 24 boys and eight staff. Each of us had our own huge bedroom, father had a study and dressing room; mother had her sewing room. There was a vast entrance hall, big enough to hold a dance in, with a baby grand piano in it, and later Victoria had her own piano in her bedroom.’
It seems, too, that while Victoria lacked pretension, her mother Nellie — a complex and difficult character — was, according to Chris, a remorseless social climber who made strenuous efforts to cut off from her roots in working-class Manchester.
Nellie — bright and frustrated by the constraints of motherhood — was one of eight children born to a father invalided in the First World War and a mother who worked in a cotton mill. Nellie had left school at 14 to work in a steel works.
That she resumed her studies aged 49, and gained a BA and a Masters degree before beginning a new career as a lecturer in English literature, is well documented.
Only her immediate family, however, knew about the multifarious complexities of her ‘dark character,’ says Chris.
‘Nellie had been a vivacious, outgoing woman in the younger days, and when she met my father Stan it was a love match,’ he says.
His diary records that in 1950, three years before Victoria was born, he received £100 in one month for a sales bonus alone, and almost £700 for a radio play. (The national average wage at the time was £400 a year.)Meanwhile, Stan was supplementing his healthy income as an insurance underwriter by writing radio plays and songs, and producing stage musicals.
‘Often she’d only speak to me through my father. She’d say: “Tell the boy this . . .” when I was standing right by her. I’d call it mental cruelty.
‘When we were small I remember her rubbing our faces so hard with a flannel she nearly scoured the skin off them.’
Nellie also dissociated herself from her working-class family, to the astonishing extent that she pretended to Chris that his maternal grandmother was dead when she was still very much alive.
He recalls: ‘One day when I was 14 — Vic was still a baby — I got my bike out to cycle over to my granny’s. Mum said: “You can’t go. She’s dead.”
‘I asked when she’d died and mother said: “Three weeks since.” Then I asked why I hadn’t been allowed to go to the funeral, and she said dismissively she didn’t think I’d want to. I never saw my granny again even though I later learned she lived for another eight years.’
Chris finds it hard to fathom why his mother so brutally truncated his relationship with his grandmother — and in so doing, also severed links with his many cousins, aunts and uncles still living in Manchester.
The kindest interpretation he has is this: ‘When I was 13, at about the same time as Victoria was born, I’d caught tuberculosis (TB) — a disease associated with overcrowding and poverty — from one of my cousins. I can only assume she was worried I’d go back and get ill again, and bring the infection home. But our mother’s behaviour certainly wasn’t natural.’
He remembers, however, that his mother’s public face was a gregarious one. Nellie pursued a path of upward mobility, joining the Ladies’ Circle and Costume Society.
‘She’d decided her own family were beneath her socially and she started to mix with prosperous middle-class women,’ he remembers.
He wrote scripts for the actor and broadcaster Wilfred Pickles and later for Coronation Street. By the time Victoria was born they were a prosperous family.
‘As a small child she had blue eyes and mass of golden curls,’ says Chris. ‘She was a lovely baby; always smiling and she grew into a cheeky toddler who made us laugh.’
It was from Stan, of course, that the prodigiously talented Victoria inherited her love of theatre, comedy and performance.
Touchingly, her father’s diary also records her first joke: a seven-year-old Victoria was listening as her dad told her a story about the Three Musketeers, when she asked: ‘Were they deaf? You just said they “must get ears”!’
Nellie and Stan were polar opposites. ‘Nellie was very severe,’ says Chris. ‘Like Victoria, she waged a lifelong battle against her weight and although she cooked for us all when I was a child, she used to pass food through a hatch into the dining room and never ate with us.
‘Stan was tall, good looking and an outrageous flirt.
‘I believe he was monogamous, but he was a terrific ladies’ man. He played the piano for the Ladies’ Circle and when they were considering putting on a Costume Through The Ages show, he suggested, “Why don’t you do underwear?” They agreed and he orchestrated it for them.’
It was Stan who gave Victoria her first piano lessons teaching her to play Polly Wolly Doodle on their baby grand by marking the names of the notes on the keys. Much later her brilliant comic songs, played at a white grand piano, became her hallmark; her homage to suburban lust, Let’s Do It, earning its rightful place among comedy classics. That her parents were each, in their own way, exceptional is undisputed and it is evident that she inherited traits from both. But while she has only hinted at the darkness of her childhood — the solitary meals eaten in her room; the addiction to sugar; the diet pills she took from the age of 12 — her brother confirms it.
Nellie, he says, was prey to arbitrary, black moods. She developed an antipathy to her only son — according to Chris, it was never explained why — and when he left home to go to Newcastle University aged 18, she severed links with him completely, refusing ever to speak to him again.
Indeed, she remained alienated from him for the ensuing 40 years until her death, aged 81, in 2000.
According to Chris, Nellie also tried to ban him from his father’s funeral in 1993. But it was Victoria’s then husband, Geoffrey, who stepped in.
‘He told Nellie: “Not only will Chris be there, but he will also help carry the coffin and read during the service”, which I did,’ he says, adding, ‘Geoffrey has been a very good friend to me, the very best of brothers-in-law.’
The conundrum of Nellie’s unkindness has never been resolved.
‘My sisters all said to me: “We don’t know why she was like she was”,’ Chris says now. ‘They encouraged me to go into therapy, because of the way she treated me — she didn’t disown her daughters, of course, only me. But I didn’t see a psychiatrist.’
Instead, his catharsis was to write a book about his mother ten years ago. Called Nellie’s Book, it drew on her journals and memoranda as source material – and through it, he says he learned ‘to love and admire her’.
Chris, a widower whose second wife Frances Foote died three years ago from cancer, clearly also admires his famous sibling. The sitting room of his modest terrace house in Darlington, County Durham, is cluttered with memorabilia: photos of Victoria are interspersed with those of his late wife.
Despite her busy and hugely successful career, Victoria always found time to meet her brother once or twice a year – the four siblings would gather at Christmas or New Year – and Chris would regularly go to see her shows.
‘We used to play parlour games at Christmas and Vic was always incredibly competitive,’ he recalls. ‘She had to win. And when her children were on the same side as her, they’d wipe the floor with everyone.’
It was the same talent, tenacity and determination that had always burned in Victoria.
Far from finding fault with his overweight, awkward, youngest daughter, one entry in Stanley’s journals shows just how proud he was of her.
New Victoria Wood biography - publication postponed
Family was told about it in June
The publication of a new, in-depth biography of comedian Victoria Wood by her brother Chris has been postponed for a month while the text is revised.
Originally planned for the end of this month, the new publication date is November 25th. This follows criticism of the book Victoria Wood Comedy Genius - her life and work (*) which describes the teenage Victoria as “fat and unhappy”.
The hugely talented, multi-Bafta award winning comic, writer, actor, singer-songwriter, producer and director died in April this year aged 62.
Author Chris Foote Wood said: “I have discussed this with my publisher at the Memoir Club and we both agree that I have given too much emphasis to Victoria’s early problems with her weight. I am revising the book to ensure that this aspect of her life is reduced and put in its proper context. However:
“I cannot and will not leave it out altogether as it is an essential part of Victoria’s story. She wanted the public to know about her early problems with her weight, and she spoke of them at length in some very candid press interviews.
“I am a huge fan of Victoria. I admire her all the more for overcoming her early problems to build her hugely successful career. She also had many disappointments at the start of her career, and it was years before she finally made her breakthrough. She succeeded against the odds through her force of character and sheer determination.
“I make no apology for writing this book. It tells Victoria’s story, her full story, from unpromising beginnings to national treasure. It cannot be a ‘betrayal’ to tell the full, true story, especially as Vic herself has made public her early problems.
“And I must put the record straight. To say the rest of our family did not know about my book is totally untrue. Back in May and June, I wrote to my two remaining sisters, and both of Vic’s children, telling them of my intention to write a biography of Victoria, and asking them if they had any concerns to let me know. None of them responded. In other words, they left me to it.
“It has now been announced that Victoria’s children, Grace and Henry Durham, have authorised another biography of their mother, written by a ghost writer, to be published next year. This is fine by me: the more books about Victoria, the better. I hope both of our books do well”.
Foote Wood - who added the name Foote when he married his late wife Frances Foote in 1977 - includes extracts from his father’s diaries, his own reminiscences as well as many from Victoria’s fellow actors, directors and other professionals. Chris has agreed to donate all his royalties from the book to charities supported by Victoria.
Chris Foote Wood has also set up a Crowdfunding appeal to pay for a life-size, lifelike statue of Victoria in her home town of Bury, where a site has been agreed. Bury Council is supporting the scheme and will maintain the statue once erected. Donate via www.tinyurl.com/letsdoitforvictoria
(*) Victoria Wood Comedy Genius - her life and work by Chris Foote Wood is published by The Memoir Club at £15. It will be available through bookshops and Amazon etc. Advance copies can be ordered via email firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 0191 419 2288.
For further comment and book signing events contact the Author: Chris Foote Wood (Northern Writers/Three Kings Productions) “Prestbury” 30 Brook Terrace Darlington Co. Durham DL3 6PJ Tel: 01325 483 660 Mob: 07984 060615 Email: email@example.com web: www.writersinc.biz