Victoria Wood brings bags of Talent to Highgate's own Gatehouse

PUBLISHED: 13:16 10 March 2008 | UPDATED: 14:51 07 September 2010

Victoria Wood 2 Gatehouse Upstairs

Victoria Wood 2 Gatehouse Upstairs

© Nigel Sutton 020 7794 3008 email pictures@nigelsuttonphotography.com

SHE may be laden with Baftas, but Victoria Wood isn t ashamed to admit she got her first break on a talent show. Long before Simon Cowell s barbed put-downs, and Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber s doe-eyed search for a new Maria, the weekend TV schedules heaved

SHE may be laden with Baftas, but Victoria Wood isn't ashamed to admit she got her first break on a talent show.

Long before Simon Cowell's barbed put-downs, and Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber's doe-eyed search for a new Maria, the weekend TV schedules heaved with wannabes vying for fame.

Like her fellow comedian Lenny Henry, Wood won New Faces - the 70s show hosted by Derek Hobson with the brassy theme tune, You're A Star.

"Talent shows were very big in the 70s," says Wood, 54, who was born in Lancashire and has lived in Highgate for years.

"There was Des O'Connor's Stars On Sunday, Op Knocks and New Faces. I was 20 and had been in for a couple of talent competitions in Birmingham.

"I saw them as a way of starting a career for someone like me with no connections whatsoever - although I did know a girl who worked in the make-up department at ATV (the maker of New Faces).

"People were queuing up in the street to audition and I knew I wouldn't get seen, so she put my application at the top of the pile."

The likes of Les Dennis, Marti Caine and Patti Boulaye also got a break on the show which, like X Factor, had a panel of judges including prototype Simon Cowells: music producers

Mickie Most and Tony 'hatchet man' Hatch.

"For the first time they would say harsh things and be tough on people, although it was nothing like the way they laugh at lunatics and make people look ridiculous now. They would really say whether you were going to make a living or not. Now it's just kids, but back then it was people who had done live work for years. It was seen as a great step forward for performers who had worked the cabaret clubs."

Although Wood says she knew she was good, she was unsure whether others would agree.

"It did feel hugely validating to win. You have to establish yourself somehow and all these shows come down to whether you can actually do anything."

Her reward was to appear in a "terrible sketch show".

"It turned out to be a vehicle for Marti Caine so we were all slightly shafted, but at the time it seemed marvellous to stay in a motel in Elstree and earn more than I had ever earned before."

Wood then endured "a very vague and anxious" few years when she "couldn't get going or find how to work or what I was trying to do".

Her next break came in 1978 when she appeared in a revue at The Bush theatre with Julie Walters. Not only did it cement a highly fruitful partnership with Walters that has spanned three decades, but it led to writer and theatre director David Leland commissioning a play for the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.

Talent is set in the seedy backstage dressing room of a Lancashire cabaret club as Julie and Maureen bid to break free from their social milieu by entering a talent show that turns out to be fixed.

"I had never written a play before. It was summer and it opened in October, so I wrote it in three weeks while I was staying with a friend in Jackson's Lane.

"I didn't change it - I have never managed to do that since. My husband typed it up because I couldn't type and I remember pushing it through David's letterbox in Kentish Town having no idea if it was any good."

The Guardian described the play as "knicker-wettingly funny", Granada went on to film it starring Wood and Walters, and since then - as Wood says - "I have never stopped working".

She has made TV programmes such as Wood And Walters, Dinnerladies and Victoria Wood As Seen On TV. Now Wood's local theatre, Upstairs At The Gatehouse, is reviving the play a stone's throw from her home.

"I'd just watched The South Bank Show featuring Victoria's life story," says Gatehouse director John Plews. "She talked about Talent and I thought 'I've never heard of that' so I rushed out and bought it and loved it. Shortly afterwards I bumped into her in the street and asked if I could do it and she said 'Yes'."

Stephanie Briggs takes the role of Julie while Vikki Stone plays Wood's character Maureen.

"It's about the relationship between gorgeous skinny girls and those invisible larger ones who are silently supportive and carry all the bags," says Stone who, like Wood, plays piano, performs comedy and acts.

Maureen is dragged along to accompany Julie in her bid for fame which results in disillusion.

"She's a 24-year-old secretary stuck in a life where domesticity is going to take hold of her

and trying to find a way out," says Briggs, the daughter of former Coronation Street actor Johnny Briggs.

Wood says she wasn't thinking explicitly about feminism when she wrote the play, but it does reflect tough times for women performers. "I was writing about when you are young and female, you feel that showbusiness is run by middle-aged men who are patronising and you are at a disadvantage."

She adds: "It's also about being fat and the relationship between two girls, with one who has the upper hand. I just set it in that world because you can only really write about what you know."

Talent was the first time she wrote a part with someone in mind - in this case, Julie Walters. It has been a feature of her work ever since, although she insists working regularly with the same faces is "not for security" but because "I thought they were really good".

"It does help you to have a voice in your head, even if they don't ever play the part. I was inspired by Julie when I met her. She was such an exciting person to work with and we had such a rapport based on a shared sense of humour. She's really cleverer than people give her credit for."

Walters and Wood have most recently excelled in separate straight acting projects: Walters in big-budget movies such as the Harry Potter series and Wood in the self-penned Bafta-winning Housewife 49, based on the wartime diary of Cumbrian housewife Nella Last.

"I was very pleased (about the Baftas). I was interested in it - I had Nella's diary for ages and I always thought it would make a good drama but I didn't know how people would take to it."

But Wood and Walters came back together in 2006 for Acorn Antiques The Musical which Wood wrote and directed. It was based around a Crossroads-style crummy soap opera which featured in her TV shows.

"I believe in theatre. I really loved working on Acorn Antiques and doing a musical was a blast. I like organising things, having lots to do. I have a problem if I have only one thing to do," says Wood.

She is currently squirreled away writing a film script, a process she initially found tough.

"Writing is the bit you have to do to get the show on. It's quite scary when you start something but the more drafts you do the easier it gets and you get a feeling of achievement when you finish."

Although she plans to see Talent, the mum-of-two hopes the performers are not daunted by her presence. "I am bringing friends along for camouflage," she jokes. "I don't feel proprietorial about this, I am just amazed it's 30 years old. It doesn't seem like a minute since I was writing it."

Talent runs at Upstairs At The Gatehouse Theatre until April 6.


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