Dinnerladies at 25: why the sitcom is Victoria Wood's greatest achievement

Maxine Peake as Twinkle, Anne Reid as Jean, Victoria Wood as Bren, Thelma Barlow as Dolly and Shobna Gulati as Anita from the BBC show Dinnerladies
Ladies who dinner: Maxine Peake as Twinkle, Anne Reid as Jean, Victoria Wood as Bren, Thelma Barlow as Dolly and Shobna Gulati as Anita - BBC

Twenty-five years ago today, the first episode of dinnerladies was broadcast (and, yes, that lower-case “D” is deliberate), titled Mondays (though it was a Thursday). After a quarter of a century, most sitcoms show their age. The shooting style looks stiff, the canned laughter sounds hollow, or the jokes have the yellowing patina of yesteryear. But the best never grow old.

Most – Steptoe and Son, Dad’s Army, Only Fools and Horses – tell of the lives of men. Unusually, Victoria Wood’s contribution to the form was about ordinary women: northern women in the workplace, some older, some younger or, in the case of her own character, Bren, middle-aged. From Thelma Barlow’s uptight Dolly and Julie Walters’s grotesque Petula to Maxine Peake’s bolshy Twinkle, there was someone for everyone.

Only 16 episodes were made, six in the first series, 10 in the second. The first time I met Wood, at a dinnerladies rehearsal in October 1999, she was still scripting the second series while already recording it. “I started in January,” she told me, “and I hope to finish the last one tonight.”

Twenty years later, when researching Let’s Do It: The Authorised Biography of Victoria Wood, I was to discover that she documented the creation of dinnerladies more than any other show in her entire career. She sent regular faxes to friends about the writing and filming, and kept an audio diary about making the first series. Her archive also has a notebook which outlines her earliest thoughts about characters and casting. This was her on Bren: “Me: bit barmy, cheery; engaged for years but never got around to it? Up! Second in command.”

The best sitcoms never grow old: Shobna Gulati, Maxine Peake, Victoria Wood, Duncan Preston, Celia Imrie and Thelma Barlow in dinnerladies
The best sitcoms never grow old: Shobna Gulati, Maxine Peake, Victoria Wood, Duncan Preston, Celia Imrie and Thelma Barlow in dinnerladies - Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

In reality Wood was never second in command, but she did have a chief collaborator. It was to Geoff Posner, her regular producer-director, that she pitched the idea of a sitcom shot in the fluid style of US hospital drama ER. Though she had long thought of doing a sitcom, she worried that the advent of Absolutely Fabulous in 1992 might make hers look old hat. Using handheld cameras could counteract that. The idea didn’t get far.

“We had long discussions,” Posner recalls. “The subject matter didn’t lend itself in my mind to that style of shooting. I think the thing that might have persuaded her was you’re looking very much at the technique rather than listening to what’s being said. There was a danger that the audience wouldn’t capture the wonderful language.”

And what wonderful language it was. “It’s just so funny, isn’t it?” says Anne Reid, who played the slightly slovenly Jean. “Every line is funny. It’s not every three pages. It’s just laugh after laugh after laugh.”

One of Jean’s speeches, in the very first episode, contained all the essential elements of Wood’s comedy: “His auntie Dot from Cockermouth ate a raffia drinks coaster. She thought it was a high-fibre biscuit. She had to be held back from moving down the table and buttering two more.” To alter a syllable would untune it. “It’s like missing bits of music out,” says Reid. “You can’t do it. You have to put all the notes in – and not add bits of your own.”

Having spent the 1990s doing frank stand-up about women’s bodies, Wood now gave herself permission to be gynaecological on TV. There was a supply line of gags about cystitis, yeast infections, pelvic floors, insemination by turkey baster. In some punchlines the smut was all in the ear of the listener. “Answer me one question, love: where’s my Clint?” says a woman on the warpath, played by Lill Roughley. “Can you smell my Charlie?” says Jean, drunkenly flirting with Andrew Dunn’s canteen boss Tony. Reid, who confesses she didn’t enjoy saying the line, delivered it so brilliantly that the studio audience had to be asked to laugh less in the second take.

The gags were distributed evenly among main characters and the many walk-ons. No one was a mere feed. “Just sign it, Bren, I’ve got an itchy bum,” said Norman the breadman. When Wood stealth-dropped this line into the script one morning, the rehearsal room exploded.

I ask Reid for her favourite. She plumps for a speech by Stan, the handyman played by Duncan Preston, when asked at the turn of the millennium if he has any regrets. “I failed to appreciate the full potential of the crosshead screwdriver. I was publicly pretty scornful, to be blunt. I still wake up sweating about it even now.”

“It’s brilliant, isn’t it?” says Preston, hooting with laughter down the phone. “I think my favourite was when Tony finds a baby on the stairs. Stan says: ‘This is happening more and more. It’s these novelty condoms. They’re not up to the job.’”

Lines like these prompted Alan Bennett, to whom Wood was so often compared, to hymn Stan’s praises in his diary: “She caught in the part of the handyman, played by Duncan Preston, the idiom of an old-fashioned working-class man, elaborate, literate and language-loving, which is, or was, more typical of the North than the more clichéd dialect-rich versions.”

Victoria Wood, who died in 2016, was often compared to Alan Bennett
Victoria Wood, who died in 2016, was often compared to Alan Bennett - Donald Maclellan /Hulton Archive

It was when interviewing Wood during a rehearsal that I discovered how much work went into making a masterpiece look effortless. “When we read the first episode through,” she said, “I just thought there’s something wrong, so I had to do a huge rewrite through the night.” She followed this exhausting routine often. “I’ll go through all the hoops of fire when I’m working on it myself,” Wood said. “Nobody could put me through what I put myself through.”

To abet her perfectionism, Posner proposed recording each episode twice, on Friday then, after he and Wood studied the tape, again on Saturday with fresh rewrites. Thus on Saturday afternoons, the cast might have to unlearn old lines and quickly learn new ones. The atmosphere could be tense.

“I remember drying on a show because the learning of it was all so last-minute,” says Reid. “Just looking down at the plastic fried eggs and thinking, I have no idea what I say now. I walked off like a frightened animal. I couldn’t stand the shame of not remembering it in front of an audience. I’ve only done that twice in my life.” (The other time, she says, was as Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit at Watford Palace.)

“Yes, it was difficult,” says Posner. “Vic set an extremely high bar and few actors could actually achieve that satisfactorily. It was very difficult to cast. But if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t do it any other way.”

In the end, there was just one new-fangled remnant of ER, whose title in the opening credits appeared in lower case. Wood insisted that her show should be styled dinnerladies. Then, between the recording and transmission of the first series, The Royle Family came along – audience-less, static, shot on film – to reignite Wood’s fear that she was a relic. “I think the sitcom in front of the audience is dead,” she told me matter-of-factly. “People will get used to that filmed single-camera look.”

She wasn’t wholly wrong. But dinnerladies would not die with it. After shooting the final episode, Wood presented the cast with bottles of champagne. “Minnellium” it said on the label, in honour of perhaps the show’s finest episode. Reid still has hers, unopened.  “It stands here on my shelf. I don’t know what state it would be in.” After 25 years, the vintage sitcom it memorialises still fizzes.

Chunky by Victoria Wood, with commentary from Jasper Rees, is out now (Trapeze, £25)