Victoria Wood's supermum

Nellie Wood (née Mape) was a hoarder, an inveterate saver of bits and bobs.

Nellie Wood (née Mape) was a hoarder, an inveterate saver of bits and bobs.

Among the documents discovered after she died in 2001 was the diary kept assiduously by her husband, Stanley, up until his death in 1993.

The couple, as you can see, were a biographer's dream.

Their son, the eldest of their four children, sifted through all this material. "My mother kept everything," recalls Chris Foote Wood. "It dawned on me as I was reading it all that there was a tremendous story in it.

"My mother had written the story of her life up to 1945 and she had wanted it to be published. My father, who was a very successful author, was always planning to do it but never did."

He knows this because it is written in his father's diaries, as are his observations of Chris as a baby, including a proud reference to "the fingers of a musician". This, smiles Chris sheepishly, never came to pass.

Despite the accomplishments of Nellie's life, against the odds, as we'll see, there wasn't quite enough to lift it above countless other working class existences that have now drifted into the unremembered past - but for one significant fact.

The youngest of Nellie and Stanley's children, and their third daughter, is Victoria Wood, comedian, writer, musician and national treasure.

Victoria broke into the public consciousness with an appearance on the TV talent show, New Faces, in 1974.

"They were over the moon," says Chris, remembering his parents' reaction. "They adored what she did. I think for both of them it was a culmination. I know my father, particularly, was pleased because of her musical ability."

Chris says of his kid sister: "She's unique, a one-off - a genius, in my opinion. She has such a breadth of talent: she does music, comedy, drama; she writes and produces; she does the whole thing. She has a new TV film coming out later this year."

It irks Chris that in a recent poll to find the greatest comedian of all time, his sister only came second, to Billy Connolly. Where did all this talent come from? Assuming upbringing and genes play their part, you will find the answer in Nellie's Book: The Early Life of Victoria Wood's Mother, Chris Foote Wood's biography of his mother's early life.

The book that both his parents wanted to see published, it is his way of paying homage to the pair of them.

Nellie's own account, written in 1951, proved a valuable resource. It recalls her time growing up in extreme poverty in Manchester in the 1920s and 1930s.

Chris says: "Her father was wounded in the First World War and couldn't work and her mother worked at the mill. They had eight children, two died early. There wasn't a day when Nellie wasn't hungry. It was very, very tough.

"But what impresses me about her was her optimism. None of this ever ground her down - in fact, it made her stronger. She was a very feisty woman, an active member of the Young Communists - she was very political - and a teetotaller who campaigned against the demon drink. During the Spanish Civil War she marched and campaigned on behalf of the Republicans.

"I've got lots of aunties and uncles, a couple of them still alive, but none of them turned out like her. There used to be an expression, the `boss of the street'. This is the one, usually a girl, who directs what games the children will play. That was her; she took charge.

"She loved to entertain her contemporaries. In the school yard she would start a new story on a Monday and tell it in five episodes through the week. She even called it a soap opera. She ran little clubs and put on her own plays.

"There was a teacher at the school who took her to the theatre. Once, when she was 13, Nellie put on a production of King Lear and she played Lear. The only thing she could find for a costume was this red coat so she wore that with a white beard. All the little kids thought she was Father Christmas."

Her qualities were not lost on her teachers who gave her the job of "teaching the dunces". One teacher put her forward to be head girl but the headmistress vetoed it. "She could argue with the teachers and they didn't like that," says Chris.

At 14 she went to work in the steelworks as a progress chaser, following orders through to completion. The only female employee, she didn't even apply for the job. The manager went to the school and she was picked out for it.

During the day she would work, at night she would be out, campaigning or canvassing. It led to a showdown with her father. "He literally threw her out of the house and into the rain. The little ones ran upstairs and threw her shoes and coat down to her. She went to live with a girlfriend."

There is evidence that they were reconciled. Among her stuff, Chris found a postcard from his grandfather saying: "Dear Nellie, I hope you sing well at the concert. Your loving Daddy."

Chris says: "In fact, he looked after her because her mother was out working. They were very close when she was a little girl."

Nellie met Stanley Wood "on Boxing Day, 26th December, 1937" (it's there in the records). She was 18 and he was a 25-year-old insurance claims inspector - and amateur pianist and aspiring writer. It was love at first sight.

Both of them, says Chris, were "very upwardly mobile. They worked very hard They had this attitude that they wanted to give us the very best of everything. We had to have a good education."

Stan did well with his writing, getting plays on TV and radio, but, probably because of his upbringing and the demands of a growing family, never gave up the day job. The children's development became paramount.

Chris was born in 1940. Then came Penny (1945, now an artist in Yorkshire), Rosalind (1950, a film-maker and teacher in London) and Victoria (1953) who has two children, Grace, 17, and Henry, 14, and is separated from their father, the magician Geoffrey Durham, although they remain on good terms.

Although he left home when Victoria was small, Chris well remembers her vivacity and precocious talent.

"Both of my parents insisted that we do our own thing," he recalls. "They very much believed in us thinking for ourselves and being independent. When I was a youngster I was out a lot, doing different things, and that was encouraged.

"I'm probably the least creative of all of us. I'm more of an organiser, although I did write from an early age and as a boy I produced my own newspaper."

He came to the North-East to study civil engineering at King's College, Newcastle, then part of Durham University. But he moved into journalism, writing as a freelance before establishing Durham Free Press and then a news agency which he ran for 30 years until 2003.

He is also well-known in local politics as a Liberal and Lib-Dem, and currently sits in opposition on Wear Valley Council.

Chris had three children with his first wife and lengthened his surname when he married his second, civil servant Frances Foote. They have lived for years in Bishop Auckland.

After her children had left home, Nellie "went back to school", gaining BA and MA degrees at Manchester University as a mature student and qualifying as a college lecturer in the 1970s. "I admire her enormously," says her son.

Chris and his sisters gather at least once a year. The women were happy for him to take on the task of writing their mother's biography, although Victoria contributed a foreword. Nellie and Stan, you feel, would be proud of the pair of them.

* Nellie's Book: The Early Life of Victoria Wood's Mother by Chris Foote Wood (Sutton Publishing, £12.99) will be in the shops on February 16.


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