Thursday, 3 April 2008

She'd come in at a quarter to six with her carrier bulging - and it wasn’t with Arctic Roll

For some reason - energy conservation, probably - I rarely laugh out loud at the telly. With just about anything else, I do a fair impersonation of Stuart Hall commentating on gladiatorial Bavarians dressed as pantomime ducks, but it takes a great deal to have me honking over the box. A notable exception to this rule is Kitty, the anarchic old ratbag from Victoria Wood: As Seen On TV.

As with all Victoria Wood's best '80s characters, there's no attempt made to keep Kitty sympathetic. The Continuity Announcer (the excellent Susie Blake in a mauve ruched nylon blouse complete with Princess Di-style hideous outsize bow) is a despicable snob. Julie Walters's more demented characters were surreally vulgar. Kitty is both simultaneously.

Like all good pop songs, these monologues rarely creep over three minutes in length, but pack more wonders into that infinitesimal space than is physically possible. With a delicately balanced mix of ebullience and spite, this weird, domineering WI refugee, who appears to have let herself into the studio, rattles on about the mundane minutiae of her week to a suddenly captive audience.

Her week is invariably strange, but in a workaday sort of way. Wood's usual lower middle class reference points are thrown up in the air and scattered in bizarre patterns. There are a few recurring characters - the lesbian producer, 'the boys from flat five' and Kitty's assorted fellow rummy club members - but most of the action takes place inside Kitty's disturbed chintzy brain. She's Alan Bennett's psychedelic auntie, and could clearly keep up this prattle of unconsciousness all day, despite her repeated insistence she's 'not stopping long'.

Here are a few refresher quotes:

  • The first day I met her she said, ‘I’m a radical feminist lesbian’; I thought what would the Queen Mum do? So I just smiled and said, ‘We shall have fog by tea-time!’
  • Fortunately, I’ve just had my TV mended. I say mended – a shifty young man in plimsolls waggled my aerial and wolfed my Gipsy Creams, but that’s the comprehensive system for you.
  • I don’t drink as a rule, not wishing to have a liver the size of a hot-water bottle. If I need a ‘buzz’, as I call it, I have a piccalilli sandwich with Worcester sauce. That takes your mind off your bunions, believe me.

There are dozens just as good. In fact, there's nothing in these sketches that isn't. It's amazing how much Wood crammed into every bit of As Seen On TV (though I still find some of the songs hard going). One episode contains enough good jokes to sustain a ten-year career by modern standards, though a modern career would have trouble yielding even one line to match it.

And Routledge is brilliant, of course. It's a grotesque performance - her mouth chews the air around the words and contorts itself into all sorts of manic shapes in between them - but that doesn't mean it's not full of little subtle touches, like an intricately carved bust of Stan Boardman. I won't succumb to prattishness by comparing her mastery of Wood's rolling verbal rhythms to the knack of speaking Shakespearean blank verse, but you get the idea - this is poetry, and wonderful it is, too.

Seriously, does anyone not like this?


  1. I have both series of ASOTV on ancient home-taped vids, and can honestly say that it's still one of the most brilliantly funny and well-constructed sketch comedy series ever, and the fact that it was all written by one person makes it even more remarkable. Now, if I could just edit out ALL the songs...

  2. I've always thought of VW as being in the same vein as Alan Bennett in terms of being apparently able to nail down entire characters and lifestyles through a few choice words.
    The songs I can kind of take or leave, though if memory serves she often has a rather 'eager to please' look on her face as she performs them, which used to make me rather awkward. Though some of them are very clever ('Barry and Freda' is one I still enjoy, though when she performs it live now I do wonder if it's with a hint of reluctance).

  3. The Susie Blake continuity person made our family laugh so much. I seem to recall her casually mentioning going to school with someone about to appear in the programme she was announcing, and then stating she had a serious body odour problem. My parents laughed so hard I feared for them both.

  4. Kitty is marvellous. As you say, funny and memorable. Who can you say that about these days - and not a catchphrase in sight!