There are countless intensely pleasing and laugh-out-loud moments, not least the ones that read unintentionally like something from one of her own scripts: “After popping up as a guest on The Apprentice: You’re Fired!, Victoria had nothing much else on for the rest of the year and decided to have an operation on a bunion.” The book is full of nostalgic – and often politically incorrect – one-liners that you can almost hear her or her characters whispering in your ear: “See Naples and die. See Morecambe and feel as if you already have.” “Dear Queen, I cannot have a party in my street / Because I live between a mental home / And a workshop that makes artificial feet.”
Victoria Wood had intended to write her autobiography but sady never got round to it. However, her estate asked author and journalist Jasper Rees to write her biography. He had interviewed her many times, and with exclusive access to Victoria's archive, rees has produced this fascinating portrait of a comedy genius who became a national treasure.
These are the richest stretches of the book, with insights into how Acorn Antiques flopped with the first studio audiences, the overnight composition of The Ballad of Barry and Freda (the barnstorming song from which the book takes its title), and the painful gestation of Pat and Margaret (to my mind her single greatest achievement). Rees’ writing style is pretty plain (every sizzling casserole needs an oven glove), though does occasionally venture into Woodish ways: “Victoria had nothing much on for the rest of the year and decided to have an operation on a bunion.” And the detail-driven quality of Let’s Do It is also its weakness.
It does not feel intrusive because it is so richly fed with the memories of those who properly loved her, and those memories add to the store of lines to treasure. Some are just reported speech or letters, such as her scorn for Joan Bakewell’s 1970s feminist chat show: “People from Spare Rib magazine . . . sit around for six interminable programmes whining about their ovaries.” Some are fragments of forgotten shows, like a description of lifestyle journalists “on wobbly tables in seedy flats, with fibreglass curtains that smell of cats, tiny minds type for a tiny fee”. Or a prototype classic disapproving matron: “Today’s young, they don’t comprehend the meaning of home entertainment — they turn to each other’s private parts out of sheer boredom . . . I kept myself happy for years with a couple of bobbins and a crochet hook.”
Wood was a tireless archivist of her own life, keeping boxes of scripts, working notes and letters. This book crams them in, and Rees is such a fan that he can’t resist quoting at length from the gags that didn’t make the final cut, such as a series of TV parodies including Delia’s Back To Basics, which featured chef Delia Smith heating up beans and eating them out of the can. For anyone who loves Victoria Wood, this biography — authorised by her literary estate — is a joy.
With meticulous thoroughness is one answer: Let’s Do It is nearly 600 pages long and copiously footnoted. Rees interviewed Wood frequently in her lifetime, spent two years on research, using Wood’s own audio and written notes, and interviewed more than 200 people (from her children and perennial collaborators to occasional accompanists). It shows — which sounds like a backhanded compliment but isn’t, really: this is an immersive, authoritative book.
Admittedly the inclusion of Wood’s jokes makes Let’s Do It feel more joyful; Rees, with access to her archives plus interviews with friends and families, forensically includes every BBC meeting, every ITV negotiation, business creeping up on the laughter. You can almost feel him riffling files, rewinding tapes, so carefully is it pieced together. Yet the reward is a 360-degree biography that transforms a beloved entertainer into a real human being, moving about a recognisable world: unhappy family home, provincial theatre, TV studio, celebrity’s Highgate terrace, even, heartbreakingly, hospital room. It’s a book for fans, of course, but it also documents 40 years of British entertainment, filtered through a life that stretched so much further than a few knackered bras.