The new authorised biography of Victoria Wood is a warm and thorough dedication to one of Britain’s favourite comedians. Carolyn Percy reviews Jasper Rees’ Let’s Do It: The Authorised Biography of Victoria Wood.
I should probably start this review with a disclaimer: I am a massive Victoria Wood fan. I don’t think it would be an overstatement to say that she was, and still is, one of the nation’s favourite writers and comedians. I’ve been a fan since I saw the ITV broadcast of her 1997 ‘Live’ tour. From there, I went through all of her other stand-up performances we had on video, moving on to her sketch shows, films and sitcom. Her output was prodigious, her versatility impressive. She had the ability to imbue the every day and mundane with a lasting poetry. And hilarious poetry, at that. Even now, whenever beetroot is mentioned, I am almost contractually obliged to reply with “Do you like beetroot, Clint?”
Victoria Wood’s official biographer, journalist Jasper Rees, is also a fan; he interviewed her more times than anyone else,and it was because of this intimacy that her estate asked him to write her story in full. The above quote is from a 1993 stand-up tour, but Let’s Do It is not a thin biography: it weighs in at a whopping 578 pages, with only 72 of those being the (still rather epic) list of sources and index.
Rees conducted over 200 interviews with Victoria’s family, friends and colleagues; he was also given access to her extensive archive of personal and professional material. It is her story from the beginning, her birth and early life, through the ups and downs of her career to her struggle with cancer and untimely passing in 2016 at the age of only 62. The story between those bookends is one of a comedy giant of the most British variety. There aren’t any earth-shattering revelations, but it’s not that kind of biography. It’s not a tell-all, gossipy rake-over, but a detailed, considered and meticulous portrait of a genius as a relatable and complex person. Wood was a shy show-off, whose isolated upbringing – geographic and emotional – nurtured her talent but made her crave fame and attention; she wanted to make people laugh but, at the same time, didn’t like socialising; someone who was always confident in her individuality and her talent, but sometimes lacked confidence in herself, who had to do battle with an industry which often either overlooked her or didn’t know what to do with her. She blossomed into a brilliant performer in the process and yet, offstage, remained incredibly private; someone who was warm, funny, down-to-earth and generous, but also a ruthlessly professional workaholic, unafraid to be bossy or blunt when necessary, who constructed her sentences like music and wouldn’t tolerate any bum notes; a voracious reader, a brilliant writer, a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother and a friend.
Let’s Do It is very well-written; Rees’s prose striking just the right balance between being workmanlike without ever being dull. It is thankfully lacking in any authorial flourishes that would prove distracting or indulgent. The book is peppered with plenty of quotes from Wood herself, and her work, and there are the words of her family, friends and colleagues to add a bit of spice, combining to make a fascinating, frequently funny, and sometimes poignant read (the last two chapters are particularly hard-going in this respect).
Whether you’re familiar with her work or not (and if not, you really ought to remedy that as soon as possible; you’re missing out), or if you have even a passing interest in British comedy, theatre or television, pick up a copy of Let’s Do It and read it tonight! *insert the ‘Barry & Frieda’ piano flourish here*
Let’s Do It: The Authorised Biography of Victoria Wood by Jasper Rees is available now from Orion Books.