Let's Do It by Jasper Rees review – Victoria Wood, perfectionist

<span>Photograph: ITV/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Victoria Wood was an extraordinarily prolific writer and performer, famed for Acorn Antiques for TV and stage, Pat and Margaret, Dinnerladies, Housewife, 49 as well as her own sketch series, annual specials and standup tours. She was nominated for a Bafta 14 times. So it seems remarkable that she never really published any books, let alone a memoir. There’s a warts-and-all biography from the early 2000s – which she hated – and you can always get hold of copies of her scripts. But this authorised biography is a first. It fills a major gap and is proudly billed as “the closest we’ll ever get to her autobiography”.

It seems reasonable to assume that Wood authorised this book partly because she would never actually have written it herself. Until her death in April 2016, from cancer at the age of 62, she always came across in interviews as someone who was not a fan of self-analysis and who did not want to have to explain or justify herself to anyone. In fact, though, she told biographer Jasper Rees the opposite: “I will do it one day,” she said of writing a memoir. “It would be about my childhood, about my first few years in show business, which were really interesting and would make a really nice story.” Rees tells a slightly different tale and one that feels more authentic. It’s definitely “interesting” – fascinating, even – but uncomplicatedly “nice” is something this story isn’t. And it’s all the better for it.

Rees’s book is based on hundreds of interviews and a series of audio diaries Wood had been recording since 1998. (He writes: “The tapes are punctuated with deep, shuddering yawns. They would not be heard by anyone until after her death.”) It’s an account of her life written with the blessing of her two surviving children and ex-husband Geoffrey Durham, plus contributions from relatives, producers and friends, from Julie Walters and Celia Imrie to Dawn French and Michael Ball.

The level of detail and analysis is astonishing. Let’s Do It displays Wood’s incredible work ethic and the extent to which she took comedy seriously. A workhorse and a perfectionist, her rewrites were dreaded even by the famous cast members who were her best friends. She would also mine them for material and character detail. “If Julie or I went wrong,” Imrie says, “Vic would turn to the audience and say: ‘Tracey Ullman wasn’t free.’ It made us feel like shit.” Each episode of the sitcom Dinnerladies was famously recorded twice in front of a studio audience in a move unprecedented for its genre: once on a Friday night with a first draft of the script and again 24 hours later, incorporating Wood’s rewrites, which had to be hastily memorised by the anxious cast.

Julie Walters, left, with Celia Imrie in Acorn Antiques.
Julie Walters, left, with Celia Imrie in Acorn Antiques. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Wood had a difficult, eccentric childhood, brought to life vividly and with empathy here. Her father, Stanley, was an insurance salesman who had dabbled in writing fiction and songs. Her mother, Helen, kept herself to herself and engineered the family’s move to a remote property, Birtle Edge House – a 15-minute drive from Bury, Lancashire – where everyone had the space to disappear into their own little worlds. The isolation of the place and her family’s solitary habits were to play a huge role: they all stayed in their rooms and, as her three older siblings grew up and moved out, communal mealtimes were non-existent. Wood had plenty of time to lose herself in reading and the piano. She learned how to observe and how to amuse herself. By her own admission she was often lonely and insecure. And she dreamed of being famous.

She drifted half-heartedly towards the drama department of Birmingham University by the early 1970s but felt lost amid the army of willowy blonde aspiring actors. At an early, failed audition she briefly crossed paths with Walters, who remembers Wood being sick into a bin. Her early career is described as one of frustration and endless false dawns, which perhaps go some way to explaining Wood’s desire for control by the time she did “make it”. Many of us have an image in our mind’s eye of her charming the New Faces audience in 1974 with flicked hair, yellow blouse and dungarees, propelled to overnight fame. In fact for years after that moment she struggled with being labelled, patronised and underrated as a musical turn and/or “female commentator from Morecambe” (where she moved after university).

It took the best part of a decade for Wood to establish herself as a standup and sketch writer (and, later, director), with support and suggestions from her husband (“The Great Soprendo”), who helped hone her act as the two of them played small venues as a double bill. In her early days, despite her name being simple and memorable, she was repeatedly wrongly described: “Joanna Wood” on New Faces; “Virginia Wood” by a regional announcer; Christine Wood, Veronica Wood, Victoria Woods … The list goes on.

Her great talent was to make personal and painful experiences seem universal and laughable

The question of an unnamed, sniffy kind of casual misogyny hangs over Wood’s career. Rees mentions in passing that Wood said both in childhood and adulthood that she would rather be a man and had very little truck with feminism or tokenism of any kind. This comes across here as spikily admirable: Wood was her own person, an individual, a one-off, never there to “represent”. Instead her great talent was to make personal and painful experiences seem universal and laughable. Often her biggest successes were not really about female experience but about class, snobbery, small-mindedness and the vicissitudes of a particular kind of Englishness.

There are countless intensely pleasing and laugh-out-loud moments, not least the ones that read unintentionally like something from one of her own scripts: “After popping up as a guest on The Apprentice: You’re Fired!, Victoria had nothing much else on for the rest of the year and decided to have an operation on a bunion.” The book is full of nostalgic – and often politically incorrect – one-liners that you can almost hear her or her characters whispering in your ear: “See Naples and die. See Morecambe and feel as if you already have.” “Dear Queen, I cannot have a party in my street / Because I live between a mental home / And a workshop that makes artificial feet.”

Let’s Do It is a biography that feels as unflinching and true as it is entertaining and affectionate. Rees pulls off the trick of writing a brilliant tribute while also – somehow, almost – bringing Victoria Wood back to life in all her complicated glory.

• Let’s Do It is published by Trapeze (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.