Victoria Wood’s brother on revealing her teenage years in biography
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Chris Foote Wood tells BRIDGET GALTON why he felt compelled to offer his unique perspective on the late comedian
It’s a testament to how much Victoria Wood’s fans loved her that they’ve been so upset by her brother’s biography.
Six months after her death aged 62, Chris Foote Wood published a personal family take on his famous younger sibling.
The Highgate comedian’s legion of admirers have complained that Victoria Wood: Comedy Genius (The Memoir Club £12) contains diary entries from their father, Stanley, recording her teenage unhappiness and struggles with her weight.
Some have also accused Chris of cashing in on the fiercely private Wood, but the Durham resident insists all royalties will be donated to her favourite charities.
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“I am disappointed that much of the press has been negative - it’s wholly unwarranted,” says the journalist and biographer.
“I am a writer. I’ve written biographies of my mother Nellie and my late wife. It seemed obvious I should do one for Victoria. I wanted her life to be recorded. I have a unique perspective and I felt compelled to do it.”
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He points out that Victoria herself spoke about these issues.
“I haven’t revealed things that are only known within the family. I am only carrying on what she spoke about. As a teenager she was overweight, unhappy, lonely and neglected, she said that herself. If you leave out the bad bits, what’s the point?”
He admits Victoria “kept her private life private and didn’t want press intrusion particularly for her children Grace and Henry”.
“She and her ex-husband Geoffrey Durham were determined they should not be affected by their fame. She always said it was easy to be anonymous in Highgate when you have Sting living round the corner, and at home she had a very normal life; the life she wished she’d had as a child. She was just mum, she revelled in domesticity.”
The BAFTA winner kept her cancer secret from many, including Chris, although his other two sisters knew about her illness.
Now in their 20s, Wood’s children are writing their own biography, but Chris sent copies of his to the family and says: “In our family the rule is do your own thing, they have no problem with it but are not promoting it. That’s ok, you can’t have too many books about Vic.”
Born in Bury in 1953, Victoria was 13 years younger than Chris, who left home when she was six and later became estranged from Nellie.
So details of her teenage years come from the diaries his father Stan kept for 44 years.
“She was a happy, cheeky child who used to pull faces to make us laugh. I didn’t see her during the teen years when she more or less locked herself in her bedroom. Our father could be quite cruel at times. He made fun of Vic being fat but he made fun of all of us. He was a guy born before the First World War. What was funny then is cruel now.”
If Nellie was cold and distant, running a house with few outside visitors, Victoria was closer to Stan who bought her a piano aged 15.
“Dad knew early on that she was hugely talented and encouraged her. If she got her drive and determination from our mother her artistic side came from Stan.”
An insuranceman and in Victoria’s words “a frustrated performer” Stan dabbled in politics, wrote songs, plays, novels, a musical and even scripts for Coronation Street.
“Ours was a very disjointed family,” says Chris. “They thought if they fed, clothed us and gave us a good education that was that. They were both out a lot, mother was a solitary, dark, standoffish person, not a caring mother. We were left to our own devices. I loved it but Vic felt neglected. She would play her piano to herself and bow to an imaginary audience.”
He doesn’t argue with Victoria’s claim that there was never praise in the house but adds: “In his diary Stan said how proud of her he was. He wrote about her helping him with songs; he’d pay her a penny a bar for transcribing band parts. They just expected us to be good and wanted all four of us to be famous. I don’t think she gave sufficient credit to Stan for encouraging her in her early days. She was very close to him.”
Chris also recalls Victoria’s lifechanging visit to see Joyce Grenfell aged eight with her mother and sisters.
“It was the first time she realised a woman on stage could command an audience. Mum took the older girls backstage leaving Vic behind but when they told Grenfell they had another sister she came out to chat to Victoria. She never forgot that and always gave time to her fans.”
It was first at youth theatre, then studying drama at university, that Wood gained the confidence to perform. She won talent contest New Faces in 1973 before becoming Britain’s favourite female comedian with hits such as Wood and Walters As Seen on TV, and Dinnerladies.
Chris calls his sister “intense” and describes her focus and perfectionism at work.
“Those difficult years in her bedroom formed her character and gave her a steely determination. She wanted to control everything, do it her way, but above all she wanted to please her public. All performers live for applause, but she was glad to get awards because it confirmed she was pleasing the public and they gave her the clout to do the next job. She used her fame as a weapon.”
In later life, Victoria addressed her sugar addiction. “She became a vegetarian, ate sensibly, she beat that particular demon and wanted to give confidence to girls in the same position. I admire her courage in speaking out.”
He adds: “Vic was not funny all the time, she never told a joke in private, it was me who was always telling the jokes. I am a performer myself with a one man show but nothing like as talented.”
Although Victoria and Durham divorced in 2002 they lived near each other and he was there when she died.
“There was no one else involved and she never had anyone else in her life,” says Chris who is raising £30,000 for a statue of Victoria as her Dinnerladies character in her home town of Bury.
“I am very, very sad, when there are four of you, you don’t expect the youngest to go first, but you have to celebrate her massive legacy that brought such happiness. Today it’s all about being photographed with their idols. I want Vic’s statue to be life size so the fans they can go up and put their arms around her.”