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Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies

The award-winning BBC sitcom, Dinnerladies, was first broadcast 21 years ago, yet it remains a cult comedy classic, thanks to its re-runs on the Gold network. The comedy by Victoria Wood is as fresh today as it was back in 1998, with a new generation of viewers warming to the antics of canteen manager Brenda Furlong and her staff.

The late writer, comedian, singer and actress starred as Brenda (affectionately known as "Bren"), as well as writing and co-producing Dinnerladies. Broadcast until 2000, the series included the ensemble cast and Wood's rich dialogue that brought ordinary folk to life.

The series won several awards, including Best New TV Comedy at the British Comedy Awards 1999, the Press Prize at the Rose d'Or Light Entertainment Festival the same year, and Best TV Comedy at the British Comedy Awards 2000.

Victoria Wood

© Moviestore collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

 

Success story

Although Dinnerladies has become the comedy series everyone remembers, Wood's earlier TV sketches are also classics. She first enjoyed fame in the 1980s with Victoria Wood As Seen On TV, from 1985 to 1987. The show featured a spoof soap opera, Acorn Antiques, in which Wood starred with her comedy partner, Julie Walters.

Wood based the satire on the long-running soap, Crossroads, which was well-known for its shaky sets and low budget production. She played the owner of an antiques shop, Miss Babs, while Walters played her assistant, Mrs Overall, famous for her floral apron and tea trolley.

Dinnerladies followed Wood's earlier sketch show and rocketed her to fame. She went on to win five BAFTA awards, including Best Actress in 2006 for her television film, "Housewife, 49", in which she played a dowdy housewife whose lot improved when she volunteered during World War II.

In 2014, she was awarded a BAFTA Fellowship. She received the CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours in 2008 for her services to entertainment, and was named as one of British comedy's top 50 acts in The Observer in 2003.

 

Dinnerladies

Wood always had the Midas touch when it came to comedy, but she admitted to feeling a little daunted when she sat down to write a sitcom. She had been inspired to embark on a career in comedy as a child when she saw comic actress Joyce Grenfell on stage, but she didn't tackle a fully-fledged sitcom until the 1990s, because it was such a massive task.

She chose the mundane setting of a factory canteen in Manchester because it lent itself to poignant and subtle humour. In addition to writing and starring in the show, Wood also composed and sang the theme song. She came up with the characters first and wrote the plots around them, rather than the other way round. Each character had their own traits and quirks and she imagined their interactions, based on their characteristics.

Wood admitted to having writer's block at first, but once she got over this, she wrote the first series in just one month. Filming began in 1997. The second series took longer and she said she almost packed it in, but eventually, after six months, it was complete.

 

Plot and characters

The ongoing storyline saw Bren solving her workmates' problems, but feeling powerless to sort out her own. The gentle comedy frequently had a poignant undercurrent that endeared the characters to the viewers.

Central to the plot was Bren's difficult relationship with her eccentric mother, Petula, played by Julie Walters. Petula visited her daughter only when she wanted a favour, such as borrowing money. She was a compulsive liar, pretending to be friends with the stars, while really living frugally in a caravan.

Bubbling under is the sub-plot about Bren's apparently unrequited feelings for her co-worker, Tony. What she doesn't know is that Tony, played by Andrew Dunn, feels the same way, but they're both too shy to admit it. They finally get together in series two and move to Scotland as a couple at the end of the final episode.

The other main characters include Dolly, a prim and prudish social climber, played by Thelma Barlow, who frowns on bad language and can be rather catty. The most outrageous character, in terms of her antics, is Anita, played by Shobna Gulati.

Throughout the series, she seems pleasant enough, but she shocks everyone when she finds out she's accidentally pregnant, has the baby - and then runs away leaving him behind! She leaves a note asking Bren to take care of the child but eventually realises the error of her ways and returns.

 

Hilarious scenes

One of the most hilarious plots revolved around Petula's decision to move her caravan home into the factory car park. Bren is mortified to discover her errant mother has moved in with Clint - her 16-year-old fiancé! Clint's disgusted mother calls the national press and forms a picket line on the car park. Desperate to resolve the situation, Bren suggests an Oprah Winfrey-style talk show to work things out!

Some of the storylines are much simpler, such as when The National Blood Service arrives to ask people to give blood, but Bren's phobia about needles means that she refuses. This leads her workmates to speculate that Bren is pregnant, causing some misunderstandings.

The series was testament to Wood's great ability to create hilarious dialogue, while never losing sight of each character's unique personality traits, even when they were involved in some outrageous antics!

 

Filming

The cast would rehearse each episode for the whole week prior to recording. The series was filmed in front of a live audience -in fact, each episode was filmed twice, in front of two different audiences on separate evenings at BBC Television Centre.

Wood later explained that each recording would have a different atmosphere, depending on the audience. Sometimes, there would be lots of hysterical laughter and screaming, while the next audience may be a coach party of senior citizens, whose reaction would be totally different.

She would decide which version generated the most laughter and this would be the recording that was broadcast. Filming each episode twice made the production expensive and was completely unique in its day, but it worked and was permitted to continue because Wood had such a huge status at the BBC.

When Dinnerladies celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018, a three-part documentary series, called Dinnerladies Diaries, was produced. Based on Wood's personal diaries, it went behind the scenes to reveal the story of how the sitcom was created and became such a huge success.

Broadcast on the Gold channel, the documentary also featured interviews with the cast members and some previously unseen backstage photos.

 

End of an era

Throughout its two-year run, Dinnerladies received rave reviews from TV critics and millions of viewers tuned in to follow their antics. Wood decided to end on a high and announced there wasn't going to be a third series, as she was satisfied the show had run its course. She wanted to keep it short and sweet, securing its place as a cult series that left fans wanting more.

The programme took an affectionate look at the role of the dinner lady, the mainstay of many factories, schools and other organisations. The old saying, "An army marches on its stomach," is true for other professions too, since everyone needs to eat well to carry out their duties efficiently.

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