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The Victoria Wood way: a trail for others, too

29 April 2016

I WAS getting ready for morning prayer on Thursday of last week, when I heard that Victoria Wood had died. Instinctively, I lit a candle for her at the shrine of St Frideswide in Christ Church Cathedral. It was a simple act of gratitude for one whose comic writing and performing had brought, to me at least, light as well as levity.

I went home for breakfast and watched on YouTube her hilarious “Ballad of Freda and Barry” — the song of the randy wife urging on her increasingly reluctant husband (“Bend me over backwards on me hostess trolley . . .”). Wood was a great pioneer of female comics, and multi-talented in an age when so many performers have only one endlessly hyped and repeated act.

Bizarrely, perhaps, she made me think of women pioneers in the Church. Twenty-two years after the first ordinations to the priesthood, I see a parallel with the way those first women priests had so often, like her, to blend exquisite subtlety with a robust sense of the ridiculous, if only to survive in a Church that alternately ignored and patronised them.

They also had to perfect the art of being non-threatening. Wood was brilliant at this. When she was in her early days as a television performer, she cultivated a pudding-basin haircut, knits, unflattering trousers, and trainers, projecting herself more as a big cousin from the north than as the star that she actually was.

She had a highly sensitive ear for language, nuance, and rhythm — all gifts that priests need if they are “to hear as those who are taught”. She was sharp, but not cruel; she made ordinary stuff poetic, especially ordinary female stuff; and it all seemed easy.

Even in the spotlight, she managed to give the impression that she had just turned up for a chat. The women who have advanced in the Church have not looked for stardom, but have often been superlative and creative listeners, using the soft skills of observation and dry humour gently to subvert the way the Church works. Modesty has proved a virtue for them, as it did for her.

There was a sad side to Wood. She had therapy for long-term eating problems, being always convinced that she was too fat. I have met similar problems with women clergy, where the conundrum of the role meets an inner insecurity, and is expressed through fears about the body.

Wood found some spiritual succour by attending Quaker meetings. I would suggest that we are all doomed, unless we find time and space to listen for the healing silence of God. Meanwhile, Victoria, rest in peace. And thank you for paving the way for others.

 

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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