Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Victoria Wood : Screenplays DVD

Victoria Wood Screenplays is a Network DVD release that brings together three plays made for Granada TV by Victoria Wood between 1979-1981. As such they rank as examples of some of her earliest TV work, already showcasing her trademark Northern wit.

Happy Since I Met You (1981)

Happy Since I Met You is unusual in that it does not star Wood (though her signature song, Happy Since I Met You plays to emphasise certain key scenes - often with heavy irony - throughout) Instead it stars Wood regulars,  Julie Walters and Duncan Preston.

The leads play two lovers who meet at a tediously embarrassing dinner party and then form a deep relationship over the coming year. In detailing the burgeoning love affair, Wood's writing is spot on. We see fondly comic moments of dating, intimacy and nest building that is immediately familiar to viewers and the courtship is a specifically slow apprehensive and sweetly fragile one as it is revealed Walters' character is timid and apprehensive when it comes to sex. 

Then, following the 'End of Part One' (the break kept in the DVD's here) the tone begins to change. Inevitably alongside the happiness is the heartbreak as both Walters and Preston realise there's a commitment required in itself to the commitment of living together. I have to admit it's this more downbeat turn of events that I appreciated more. You sense that our two leads are keen to get their teeth into some seriously strong material and they play the claustrophobia and frustrations they have created for themselves very well. I must admit it rang true to me personally too; Wood slowly reveals (though never truly pinpoints) the fact that Walters character has some form of mental illness or at the very least, a recurring clinical depression, which makes her difficult to live with and we become witness to some violent and strikingly surprising moments that are of marked contrast to the previous half of the play. This is the point where I felt I knew this person, as I lived with a girl very similar (albeit more advanced; she was bipolar and self harmed) for several years - neither of us having the guts to call it a day until it was perhaps too late.

Happy Since I Met You is a surprisingly mature work from a then still very young Wood.

* * *

Talent (1979)

"Everyone assumed I had written it with the express purpose of drinking Babycham and having my bosoms fondled nightly"

- Victoria Wood on her play, Talent.

Talent was Wood's first play, commissioned by David Leland for the Crucible in 1978. Initially Leland had specifically asked for Wood to co-write with Ron Hutchison a play about strippers. Hutchison was ultimately too busy to contribute and Wood, admitting she knew nothing about stripping and not being particularly interested in it either, decided to follow the writer's mantra of 'write about what you know'; she chose to write Talent, a play - with songs - about clubland's talent competition circuit (Wood having entered several since she was a teen and having gone on to win New Faces in 1975) and her ongoing fascination with friendships between tough sparky and attractive girls and overweight plain girls.

The play subsequently transferred to London in 1979 and, in that same year, Granada television commissioned Wood to adapt the play for screen.

And, aah I just love this!

The plot is very straightforward. Julie (played by Julie Walters) arrives at Bunters, a downbeat Manchester club, to perform in the night's talent competition. A secretary by day and a singer by night, Julie is caught between her dreams of showbiz success and glamour and the dawning realisation of her more likely future of domestic drudgery. With her for support is the awkward Maureen (Wood) long in the shadow of her slimmer, better-looking friend.

Set largely in the grotty dressing room and equally noxious backstage area, the play introduces other characters like the eternally optimistic George and Arthur played by Coronation Street's Percy Sugden, Bill Waddington and Nat Jackley; two OAPs who perform an old style comedic magic routine (George's usual assistant his his wife but she's at a beetle drive that evening and the somewhat dazed but cheery Arthur is her stand in) and Mel, the resident pianist played by Kevin Lloyd, who has a sexual history with Julie; having abandoned her as a pregnant schoolgirl. Mel isn't even the worst slimeball of the piece, that dubious honour falls to Peter Ellis (who along with Lloyd would later also appear in The Bill) as the club compere; a humourless man only interested in one thing - groping the girls in exchange for the promise of a few pulled strings to benefit their career. 

Talent is still a play with much to say, perhaps even more in this day and age of instant 15 minutes of fame thanks to the huge success of Simon Cowell's exploitative TV talent shows. But equally, in the startling and sobering present day of Operation Yewtree revelations, it's easy to see more and be sickened more in the wandering hands of the compere. Knowing what we do now, the promise of fame and appearances on TV was the stock in trade for the likes of Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall to secure the abuse of their naive starstruck victims. Not that Julie or Maureen are children, they're in their twenties (though it's interesting that Mel was an older man who had a sexual relationship with Julie when she was a teenager) but it remains telling that even people on the fringes of entertainment felt justified in 'trying their luck' with the wannabe talent, considering it a perk of the job.

Unfortunately, a minor niggle is the fact that some aspects of the production aren't as successful or still relevant/fresh. It's a bold, almost Dennis Potter like move, to have characters break into song seemingly without others noticing to emote their innermost feelings but one can't help feeling it is an occasionally stilted device - though Wood's lyrics are on the whole superb (and indeed would inspire The Smiths to write Rusholme Ruffians, as well as see Morrissey jokingly propose marriage to Wood via the NME) There's also some unsatisfactory exposition of the back story between Julie and Mel and the outcome is largely skirted over in a manner which betrays Wood's debut writing - perhaps with a few more years under her belt she'd have made this more convincing and explore it more. 

But these are just minor complaints in what is a wonderful prescient piece that still has the ability to entertain. This 'Talent' is a winner.

* * *

Nearly A Happy Ending (1980)

Well I have to say, of the three TV plays on this DVD this one is the only disappointment.

Nearly A Happy Ending is a sequel to the aforementioned Talent seeing Wood and Walters return to that play's characters, the mismatched friends Maureen and Julie. 

Maureen has been faithfully attending the slimmers club for months, now the weeks of endless dieting has paid off but now she feels more attractive can she actually attract the attentions of men and finally lose her virginity? Meanwhile Julie has succumbed to a life of domestic depression following the accidental death of her fiance. It's clear Maureen's fortunes are in the ascent compared to Julie's for once, but Julie is still there for her friend - helping her to pull on a night out.

I think one of the disappointments is that I don't really feel like this is a continuation of the characters we have seen in Talent. They're typically Wood characters and mark a more mature outlook towards what both she and Walters are capable of - as such the characters are maybe a bit more fitted to their growing screen personas rather than them actually playing Maureen and Julie.  Still, with Wood's typical flair for comedy creations they can't ever be considered a failure or uninteresting because they're really not, they're entertaining, engaging and funny, but away from the backstage dressing rooms of Bunters, I don't buy them as the two I previously saw and loved instantly. I guess Wood is still doing what she did in Talent, writing about what show knows (the weight loss she had between plays and seemingly a growing confidence in her looks and appearance too - then again, that may just be good acting as Maureen's confidence grows too) but it doesn't engage as well, not to me anyway, though Maureen's awkward determination to lose her virginity is depicted tenderly and sweetly. This is however counterpointed by a rather unsympathetic turn in Julie's character.

There's also more emphasis placed on the songs in this play placing it even more firmly in the musical camp (with full blown impromptu barbershop quartet and song and dance routines) and maybe that's why I didn't take to it as well as the other two plays?

On the whole it's the only miss to a DVD of hits.

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