Jayne Dowle: Much-valued Victoria puts opportunities into focus

Victoria Wood was a one-off. (PA).
Victoria Wood was a one-off. (PA).
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IT is often a platitude, but in this case it is true. We will never see her like again. The passing of Victoria Wood is a sad milestone in British cultural life.

I can almost guarantee you that there won’t be any more daughters of insurance salesmen from Bury winning five BAFTAs, international plaudits and the respect and adoration of millions of fans.

I’m not one for being maudlin. I am sad though, that the death of this amazingly talented woman at the age of 62 from cancer brings the current state of the arts into sharp perspective.

After Bury Grammar School, and teenage years at Rochdale Youth Theatre Workshop, Wood went on to study drama at Birmingham University. This was in the 1970s, when bright girls from Bury not only got places at grammar schools, but were encouraged (and supported financially, with tuition fees paid and student grants) to study creative subjects and see where their talent took them.

As it happened, it took Wood to an appearance on TV talent show New Faces, and from there a career which spanned comedy, acting, writing and music. From the comic genius of the BBC’s Acorn Antiques, with her friend and long-time collaborator Julie Walters, to the poignant understated portrayal of wartime life in the ITV1 television drama Housewife, 49, she never failed to entertain. From a young girl who was terrified of the competition at grammar school, she proved her worth over and again.

Today, for any youngster without rich parents or a trust fund, even taking the first step on the performing arts path can be an unbearable burden. Free theatre groups for teenagers are a rarity in most towns and cities. And funding for the arts in higher education has been seriously eroded, thanks to the obsession of successive governments with promoting science and technology.

How ironic that Britain prides itself on producing world-class arts and entertainment, yet places on drama courses at university, for which student loans would be available, dwindle year by year. This means that the only option are expensive theatre and dance schools and drama colleges, which can set their own fees in the thousands. At a limited number of establishments, 19 to be precise, some students may be eligible for an award to help with fees and living costs. At countless others though, there is nothing. No grant. No loan. No financial support whatsoever.

I know parents in their fifties who have remortgaged their homes to put their teenager through drama school. I know also of girls and boys brimming with performing talent who will never grace a stage in a professional production, because their families simply do not have any means. It is heart-breaking really, to witness so much potential in local and regional amateur and youth productions which the wider world will never get to see.

And then the lament goes up that the British drama scene is increasingly dominated by “posh boy” actors such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne. This has got nothing to do with changing tastes or international appeal. It’s because only rich parents can afford the fees.

This is about more than education though. The creative climate which allowed Wood to flourish has been eroded. Television entertainment these days is dominated by panel games and quiz shows populated by smart-alec chaps who think they’re funny. This isn’t entertainment. It’s an exercise in one-upmanship. And it’s rare that a woman is allowed to enter into the “banter”, unless she’s conventionally pretty and prepared to let the lads do all the talking. There’s no room here for bitter-sweet aside or a superb ear for language, just two of the things Wood excelled at.

It has been touching to see the condolences from performers such as Catherine Tate, who called Wood “a true game changer”. It is fair to say that because she didn’t fit the mould, because she delighted in exposing the awkward and the uncomfortable and because she was acutely observational of human failings, she gave other women confidence. In doing so, Wood inspired performers such as Tate to go for it and try and make it in comedy. It would be reductive though to say that we need more women like her, because there was only one Victoria Wood. However, it would be nice to know that the chance for others to shine is there.

Only last year, Julie Walters lamented the doors which have closed to young people. Her comments were supported by shadow arts minister Chris Bryant, who said that those from privileged backgrounds – such as Redmayne and Old Harrovian singer James Blunt – were “over-represented” at the top of their profession. I’m not advocating picking off posh boys who want to act and sing, just because their daddy might own half of Scotland. To do so would be narrow-minded, prejudiced and really quite dull. I’d just like all those who take the decisions and make the policies about arts and entertainment – from government ministers to the BBC – to realise that they are not just closing doors, but slamming them in today’s talented new faces.