Esther Rantzen on the late Victoria Wood: “What a writer. What a performer. What a genius”

"I was entranced with this shy, young, total original," says Rantzen, recalling her interview with the comedian on That's Life

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When I first worked in television as a researcher on a chat show, the joke was that each week we’d start by mentally booking the impossible guest, “If not the Queen, Charlie Chaplin”. But by the time each show was actually made, we were grateful for whoever happened to have a book to plug. When eventually I became a presenter myself, my dream guest was neither the Queen nor Charlie Chaplin, but Victoria Wood, and one wonderful evening that dream came true.

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It was nearly 20 years ago when a ChildLine fundraiser rang me at home, thrilled, to tell me, “Victoria Wood says she’ll do a show for us, Esther, if you will interview her.” I didn’t hesitate for a heartbeat. “Of course I will.” “One snag,” he said, “It’s in a hall in Ilkley.” “Fine,” I said. So it meant three hours’ drive there and back in an evening? Fine. Frankly, if it had been in Reykjavik it would still have been fine.

Victoria asked me to ring her the Sunday before, just to check out the question line. “What are you going to ask me about?” she said. I knew the basic facts of her life, and I took her through the chapters, the lonely childhood, the lack of confidence, her love of music, our first meeting on That’s Life! and then her success in every genre, and each time she gave the telephone equivalent of a nod.

I put the phone down and realised that I had been quite nervous. I admired her so much.

I always had, right from the moment she won New Faces. I was a regular on the Radio 4 show Start the Week with Richard Baker, and for a while she sang songs on that programme and I was entranced with this shy, young, totally original musician, so we booked her on That’s Life! Afterwards she confessed that not having anything smart to wear for our show, she used to borrow clothes from Julie Walters. She once said about me, “I don’t know why they go on about her teeth, have you seen her dresses?” Which was fair.

The night of the ChildLine show arrived, I emerged from my car in Ilkley after the three hours’ drive, feeling like a sardine still crumpled from its tin. Victoria was nowhere in sight, although I did hear some soft sounds from the dressing room next to mine.

When I was summoned up to the stage Vicky was standing in the wings, very quiet, and gave me a smile. I walked on to moderate applause from an audience crammed into every cranny, hanging off railings, the little hall packed to the rafters. I introduced Victoria, the place exploded, and on she came, now radiant, as if lit up from within by her own energy and talent.

And then I had the professional experience of my life. I will never forget sitting next to her, asking a few questions and listening to her turn her life into the most perfectly crafted anecdotes, each one with a hilarious tag. She had needed all her quiet concentration to muster up that amazing polished performance.

Of course I’ve seen her live in the Albert Hall, and marvelled at her artistry, no funny props, no feathers or sequins, just her piano to keep her company. And every time she held that giant Albert Hall audience in the palm of her hand, just as she had in Ilkley. What a writer. What a performer. (If you doubt me, just try singing The Ballad of Barry and Freda at the tonguetwisting speed she manages.)

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What a genius. Why was she never made a Dame for her talent? I don’t know. How did she stay so real, so grounded, that her wit and observation stayed truthful, not spiteful, just funny and insightful? I can’t say. Would I rather have interviewed the Queen or Charlie Chaplin? Absolutely not.