The women in the dinnerladies canteen may have spent their days buttering white-sliced bread and French sticks, but behind the scenes, life was anything but routine on the set of the Victoria Wood sitcom, which is now being remembered with a three-part documentary series on Gold.
“The responsibility for Vic was huge,” says Anne Reid, who played Jean. “It was too much, really. Sometimes you’d have just 45 minutes to learn the lines.”
Co-star Shobna Gulati (Anita) agrees: “You were expected to know it, even though it was changing, so that was hard. But there was a lot of pressure on Vic to get it right and I think she felt that.”
Rewind back to 1998 when Wood was putting her first situation comedy in front of the cameras. dinnerladies would go on to win both a Rose d’Or and best new TV comedy at the British Comedy Awards, but at the time of its creation, Wood was feeling the strain.
“There were endless rewrites. I think she almost gave up on it,” reveals Duncan Preston (Stan). “Before we’d even seen a script we were having to tell her to keep going with it.”
But when it came to shooting those initial six episodes, Wood was very much in creative control. “She wanted to hear it from us the way she heard it in her head when she wrote it,” says Reid. “When she changed things, it wasn’t to suit us.”
Adds Gulati: “But definitely to suit her. There were also problems due to the limitations of the set. “We always thought it was difficult to work on. A lot of it was almost unreachable, so we were always standing at the front,” says Preston.
Reid concurs: “Yes, that was a technical error. I’m sure it was. They really did make a mistake with the layout of the set.”
As it turns out, though, those gripes and stresses didn’t prevent dinnerladies from becoming a big success: its melancholy tone, massive gag tally and beautifully observed characterisation ensured that it remains a modern classic.
So why are we still finding the humour in Wood’s workplace comedy? “Because it’s about people’s lives,” says Gulati. “We just go round in circles like hamsters on a wheel, no matter what job we do. Getting up, getting on, getting going – those were the lyrics to the theme tune. And it’s what we all do.”
“Vic always said that she had to live an ordinary life,” explains Reid. “She’d travel on buses and trains and stay in Premier Inns because that’s where she got her material from. She couldn’t write about people she didn’t mix with.”
And was there ever any talk of dinnerladies returning? “It’s on all the time anyway!” laughs Reid. “But I did try to get her to write a Christmas special. I asked her a couple of times, actually, because I wanted to know what happened to Dolly and Jean. But she just smiled. I don’t think she wanted to visit all that again – it was so hard for her.”
Wood’s death from cancer at the age of 62 in April 2016 means, of course, that the shutters at the dinnerladies canteen will forever remain closed. “How angry she must have been when she found out she was terminally ill,” says Thelma Barlow (Dolly). “She must have had so much more in her head.”
“When you look at dinnerladies, you can’t believe how much she packed into each episode. It was an extraordinary talent and we’re now denied all that future material. I find it very hard to believe that she’s gone,” says Andrew Dunn (Tony).
Gulati nods in agreement: “She was always so supportive of our work. When you texted her, she’d text back immediately. There was no waiting. She’s still in the contacts on my phone, actually. I just can’t delete her. It feels like she’s still very much in our lives.”