Victoria Wood as Seen on TV

Victoria Wood as Seen on TV is a British comedy sketch series starring comedian Victoria Wood, with Julie Walters, Celia Imrie, Duncan Preston, Susie Blake and Patricia Routledge. The show was televised on BBC Two between 1985 and 1987 and included sketches that became famous in the United Kingdom; these included one-offs like Waitress (popularly known as Two Soups), in which Walters, as an elderly waitress, takes far too long to deliver two bowls of soup, and regular features like Acorn Antiques (a parody of low-budget soap opera), as well as musical performances by Wood including her best-known number, The Ballad of Barry and Freda(“Let’s Do It”).

The show was created when Wood was enticed away from rival television station ITV in 1984. She wrote the whole programme, and also the synopsis of it for Radio Times. The series led to spin-off script books, video tapes and DVDs.

The show won BAFTA Awards for all its episodes and, in 1996, it was awarded all-time Favourite Comedy Series by the BBC itself.

Wood preferred to work with a regular repertory of actors she could trust. After the show ended, she occasionally revived aspects of it with these colleagues. A notable spin-off is Acorn Antiques, the West End musical.

Wood, having spent most of her television career before As Seen On TV with the opposition television station ITV, was lured to the BBC with a promise of bigger budgets and more creative control than on previous television shows, such as Wood and Walters.

To produce and direct the show, Wood chose Geoff Posner, who had previously worked on successful and acclaimed British comedy shows of the early 1980s such as Not The Nine O’Clock NewsThe Young Ones and the pilot of Blackadder. Equally impressed with her work, Posner said of Wood’s gift for comedy, “She manages to examine people talking and capture speech-patterns and subjects that are everyday, but hysterical at the same time… it’s quite unique to hold a mirror up to ordinary life and make it so special.”

Going into production in summer 1984 – with studio recordings in September and October – the first series of As Seen On TV was intended for broadcast late that year. As a theatre tie-in, Wood arranged a short stand-up tour with the same name as the show, to capitalise on her television appearances around the same time. This backfired when the BBC put back the opening broadcast to early the following year.

As well as numerous stand-alone sketches and songs, the show also had many recurring items. Each show would open with Wood performing a stand-up comedy monologue, often using material she had already honed on her stage tours. Within the half-hours that followed, there were usually several fairly regular sketch items mixed in.

Linking many of the sketches was Susie Blake as a snobbish and arrogant television continuity announcer. Notable lines spoken by Blake include “We’d like to apologise to viewers in the North. It must be awful for them”.

Patricia Routledge starred as Kitty, a self-righteous middle-aged spinster from Cheadle, who featured in a weekly monologue. To show the character’s forthrightness, Wood had originally written Kitty’s opening introduction as “Hello, I’m Kitty. I’ve had a boob off and I can’t stomach whelks”; the “boob off” line was later changed to “I’ve given gallons of blood”. The Kitty character shared similarities with a character in one of Wood’s earlier sketch shows, Wood and WaltersDotty (then played by Julie Walters).

Margery & Joan featured Walters (as Margery) and Wood (as Joan) parodying banal daytime television magazine shows.

Gail and Carl was a regular sketch in series one featuring Andrew Livingston and Victoria Wood as a young, naive northern couple. For example, Carl, in response to being asked where babies come from, replies, “You want to get a pamphlet. We’ve got one at home about lagging.”

The He Didn’t? sketches that featured in the second series starred Wood as Kelly Marie Tunstall, a delinquent teenager standing at a bus stop telling her friend (Mary Jo Randle) ever more fanciful stories.”So he walks over, right, an’ ‘e ‘ad tattoos on ‘is arms – anchor ‘ere, microwave ‘ere.” “He didn’t!” “He did.” Each responds to the other after a ludicrous anecdote with the words “He didn’t?” “He did!”

Acorn Antiques is perhaps the best-remembered regular item from the series. It was a spoof soap opera set in an antiques shop, which, despite its provincial high-street status, manages to supply an unending stream of works by Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. The two shop customers appearing at the start of each sketch, examining some antique, are always played by the same two actors. The sketch parodied the soap genre with its bad acting, ridiculous dialogue and contrived plot twists. Wood, as a homage, based it on the long-running ATV/Central serial Crossroads, and the BBC radio soap opera Waggoners Walk (1969–1980).

The sketches even led to a fanzine and appreciation gatherings, where fans would dress up as the characters. In 2004, in a poll on its website, Channel 4 voted Acorn Antiques the seventh best comedy sketch of all time. In 2005, Acorn Antiques was turned into a West End musical.

Each episode of As Seen On TV also featured a spoof documentary on “slice-of-life” stories such as a girl who wanted to swim the channel and an old man moving into a home. Just An Ordinary School, for example, took a look at an exclusive girl’s public school, with one pupil claiming “there are all sorts of girls here, even coloured girls, though they tend to be princesses mainly”.

Another spoof was of a musical detailing the life of Bessie Bunter, entitled Bessie! The musical starts as an Andrew Lloyd Webber parody with the setting of a girl’s private school but they’ve included issues such as the Spanish Civil War and the McCarthy era. On being asked about Bessie’s fatness, the producer (Sir Dave) replies “it is a sort of mental fatness”. The lead actress, Carla, belts out in rehearsals one of the songs, “One Day”, despite insisting she has “pneumonia”. She says to prepare for the role she starts with the bra and then everything falls into place. Later, Bessie! is rewritten completely and the previous cast are sacked: it is, after all, a musical about “a big fat girl”. Meanwhile, Carla is crying and being comforted by her colleagues, but further upset by Sir Dave telling her to “get the **** out of here will you Carla, we don’t really want snot all over the plush love” In this rewritten part of Bessie, she is played by Victoria Wood who sings an impossibly glamorous and upbeat number. However, she complains at the end that “you’re going to have to change this floor”.

Usually lasting around five minutes, the spoof documentaries were narrated by a usually off-screen “reporter” in the first series and presented for the most part by Duncan Preston in the second series, as “Corin Huntley”. It was a continuation of style for Wood, who had previously produced similar pseudo-realistic spoofs such as The Woman Who Had 740 Children and Girls Talking for Wood and Walters.

Music featured regularly on the show, often with Wood singing self-penned songs accompanying herself on the piano. The best-remembered tune from the show is the seven-minute-long “The Ballad of Barry and Freda – Let’s Do It”. It concerns a couple, Barry and Freda; she is hungry for sex, he isn’t. It climaxes with the lines “beat me on the bottom with a Woman’s Weekly, let’s do it! Let’s do it tonight!”. The song was performed numerous times by Wood in her live performances. Wood said of the number: “A joy to write, a sod to learn, and I daren’t finish a show without it. The first time I performed it, a woman at the stage door asked, ‘How long have you been cross-eyed?'”

As Seen On TV also featured other musical styles: So Pissed Off With Love, a duet with Wood and Denis Lawson; Keep On Shopping, an epic musical number about shopping; At The Chippy, with Wood, Walters, Meg Johnson and others singing in tribute to their local fish parlour; Marie And Clarie And Min, featuring Wood, Johnson and Hope Jackman as three old women on a seaside trip, as well as other numbers. The show also contained a skit on the old “fill in” footage often slotted into scheduling to cover technical breakdowns: “I’m Gonna Knock, Knock, Knock On Your Knocker”. Comedy sketches also featured music, like the parody of the staging of a West End musical, Bessie, and a send-up of the Judy Garland–Mickey Rooney “let’s put on a show” genre in “I’m Counting Moonbeams”.

Although the show ended in 1987, elements of it have been revived by the cast from time to time. Wood and Walters both appeared as Margery and Joan in a sketch for Red Nose Day 1988 – A Night of Comic Relief, broadcast live. Acorn Antiques has been revived many times: firstly, Mrs Overall briefly returned in 1992’s Victoria Wood’s All Day Breakfast. Secondly, Acorn Antiques was briefly brought back for an episode in 2001, featuring the original cast and Nick Frost as an armed robber. In 2005 it was revived by Wood as a West End theatre production Acorn Antiques: The Musical!, starring the original cast and directed by Trevor Nunn. Limited to a 16-week sold-out run, it then toured with a brand-new cast, this time directed by Wood herself.

Preferring to work with people she knew, Wood hired David Firman to be musical director for the series. Firman had previously been musical director for Wood’s play Good Fun.

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