Looking Back At DINNERLADIES - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony’ll have the chips.
Victoria Wood was nothing quite as twee as a ‘national treasure.’ But throughout her career, she was a writer and performer of staggering observational acuity, who managed to get good at more or less everything. She wrote plays, several series of comedy sketches, songs both funny and serious, as well as taking on the challenge of coming up with weekly comic songs on topical themes for that deeply weird combination of comedy and investigative journalism, That’s Life.

She wrote devastatingly funny stand-up material and regularly sold out every gig on her tours, including the Royal Albert Hall. She worked for Comic Relief, fronted serious documentaries, wrote a series of comedy TV plays, wrote and starred in serious dramas, and one of her most beloved running comedy sketches, Acorn Antiques, was even turned into a musical.

There was seemingly nothing Victoria Wood couldn’t do – except, occasionally, reach the higher notes demanded by the songs she wrote. And while it seems inevitable that Julie Walters would have made her way to international stardom either way, it was through her friendship and professional partnership with Victoria Wood that the world at large first woke up to her dazzling range and eye-wateringly precise delivery of a sharp line.

Why the summary of Victoria Wood’s career? Just to say this was a writer of astonishing power, sometimes short-changed in the public’s assessment.

Dinnerladies was Victoria Wood’s sitcom. More than anything else, it was Victoria Wood’s sitcom – she insisted, by the time she got to Dinnerladies, on doing everything on the writing side herself. She wrote every word that appeared on screen, and – and this is something you can usually only do if you have the stature that she had by 1998, when the first series went out – she wrote it without a script editor to smooth out lines, to hike drama, to develop plot points.

It was all Victoria Wood.

What’s more, she also took the “first among equals” lead role in a hugely effective ensemble cast.
As “Bren” Furlong, deputy manager of the canteen at Manchester’s HWD Components, she is the lynchpin of much of the comedy, and also a great deal of the drama.

If this is starting to sound like a vanity project, you go and wash your brain out right now. Wood was a better writer than that, and each of the 16 episodes of Dinnerladies feels like a half-hour stage play.

That’s a feeling intensified by the fact that there’s only ever one main set – the back and front sides of the works canteen, so the action takes place ‘as live,’ with all the actors maintaining character even when the focus is not on them.

The cast merged three significant worlds. On the one hand, there were members of Victoria Wood’s unofficial ‘repertory company’ studded throughout the team – people she’d worked with back as far as her Victoria Wood: As Seen On TV days. Julie Walters was in the mix as Bren’s disgusting, possibly deluded but just possibly not mad mother, Petula. Anne Reid was Jean, one of a pair of socially different but bantering friends, occasionally displaying a gorgeously bawdy sense of humour. Duncan Preston, always Wood’s first call when she needed a reliable man in the cast, was Stan the factory handyman. And Celia Imrie, famous for a series of uptight women in Victoria Wood: As Seen On TV, was one of the few Southern characters in the series, Philippa Moorcroft, the new head of the company’s HR department.
To these Wood Rep stalwarts, Wood added Coronation Street royalty Thelma Barlow as Dolly – Jean’s more genteel and pretentious friend, forever scandalized by Jean’s down-to-earth approach to life and laughter. It was a role to which Barlow took with a superb combination of frailty and steel.

And finally, Dinnerladies offered then relatively fresh talent the chance to blossom.

Maxine Peake got her first main character TV credit as Twinkle, the young, taciturn but kindly team player on the canteen crew.

Shobna Gulati too counts Dinnerladies as her first main cast TV credit, playing Anita, the forever-ditsy but always loveable chip-slinger.

And Andrew Dunn, while less of a novice having done 5 years as a main character on drama show The Knock, brought a fresh energy to the difficult role of Tony, canteen manager and potential love interest for Bren. The main man in a kitchen full of women, he had to be both baffled, hen-pecked, and yet still effective and even admirable – a tricky road to walk in a performance, but one that Dunn makes believable.

None of the plots in Dinnerladies were ever totally external. There might be a single element thrown in to kick off the story, such as the visit of a mystery royal, or a bring-a-relative-to-work day, or even an appearance on a TV quiz show. But from that single element, the comedy – and the drama too – would spiral out in a way entirely driven by the characters, their backgrounds, motivations and challenges.

On top of that, there was always banter – usually rapidly paced, and often seemingly inconsequential. Dolly and Jean would bicker about any subject that came to them, Twinkle would frequently add a level of youthful disdain, calling her older colleagues “saddos.” Anita would often come in with a line from whichever dimension she existed on, and Bren would field it all, take it all in and do something with it. The combination was heady because it was so relatable. Any office anywhere, especially any office with women of different generations working alongside each other, will frequently sound like something you could have heard on Dinnerladies.

The difference with Dinnerladies is that you got to hear it on TV – most of the time, no-one would commission either a comedy or a drama with this much realistic bantering dialogue in it while staying more or less on a single set the whole time.
When Tony Hancock filmed his one-person, one set episode, The Bedsitter, it was deemed to be one of the most heroic successes in sitcom. Dinnerladies made 16 episodes mainly on the same single set, and while it had a lot more characters, it’s no less heroic an enterprise to get consistent comedy out of that set.

A lot of the plot advancement in Dinnerladies comes in handfuls of snatched words and shorthanded gestures while the dinnerladies get on with the hectic business of, as Tony regularly puts it, “feeding the faces of folk.” The banter that is its topsoil takes on tinges of deeper meaning in these quick conversations between demands for toast and panics about gravy, just as it does in real life workplaces, and usually Bren will try to find solutions to any issues her colleagues have.

But there is much more to it than that. Dinnerladies could have worked perfectly well if it had stopped with that much construction, but it never did. There is trouble in a lot of people’s backgrounds, or even foregrounds. Twinkle is a carer for her sick mother. Stan too is a dutiful carer to his father, of whom he always speaks proudly for his service as a Desert Rat. Tony, in a complication to the potential romance he hopes for with Bren, gets cancer and has to undergo chemotherapy in Series 1. Philippa is having an affair with a senior member of staff. Even Bren herself was given up for fostering by her mother as a child, married an alcoholic who frightened her, and has severe self-esteem issues. All this is there in the characterisations, but it never overbalances the piece, only occasionally deepens it and makes it more real.

There are a couple of vital moments where Dinnerladies hits the kind of pathos of Steptoe & Son at its best, where the hopes and dreams of people we like and respect are sacrificed to the venal needs of people we don’t – in particular, Bren’s mother, Petula. There are just a handful of moments where Dinnerladies, like life, peels back its banter and reveals the smallness of things, the tiny gradations of experience that can stand between a grinding monotony and a life that’s worth living. Moments that can put a bigger, more hearty smile on your face. And we’d like to be able to tell you the easy thing – that it’s in those moments that Dinnerladies reveals Victoria Wood’s truest talents.

But that would be to undersell the show. Victoria Wood’s truest talents are in all of Dinnerladies, the revelations of the hardness of life and the smallness of victory, and the geriatric bondage gags. In the hope of finding somebody alright to share your life with, and the frustration of knowing what you want and not being able to grab it. In the drama and the comedy.

Victoria Wood could do both, and did both frequently, but Dinnerladies remains a jewel box of a show, on par with anything Alan Bennett has written. It’s poignant, and silly, and punchy, and quiet, and daft, and brilliant, and funny all at once.

Dinnerladies never means anyone any harm, and people sometimes misjudge it on that basis, just as they did its writer. They laugh it off as light situation comedy.

Look a little deeper though, and a whole lot of human life is there – in its sharpness and darkness, as well as its laugh out loud silliness and Spoonerisms. It’s a comedy of real people, working together, finding the way to get through each day, and ultimately, the way to get through a life.

And its rarely, if ever, been done better.

Watch Dinner Ladies today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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