As Seen On TV
It felt like a real privilege to join the crowd of residents, family, fellow performers and fans to witness the unveiling of the latest addition to the list of statues of comedians, Victoria Wood, in Bury last Friday. Located right in the centre of the town on the gardens of the Unitarian Church, the life-sized bronze statue represents a prominent addition to the landscape of Bury – the significance of which was reflected in the size of the crowd that turned up to watch, the regional and national media presence and the role of local civic leaders and institutions in the co-ordination and conduct of what was a very joyful ceremony (with the actual unveiling being done by the actor and comedian Ted Robbins who, among other associations, acted as Victoria Wood’s warm-up man for her successful 80s sketch show Wood and Walters).
There is lots of interest in this latest example for the project on this (which I’ve blogged about here and here). It is another addition to the Northern (and North-Western) list of such statues, indicating their interesting geography and the powerful role of figures such as these in regional identities. The accompanying exhibition dedicated to Wood in the Bury Art Museum narrates her birth and early life in the town, as well as the journey to the bright lights of study in Birmingham and then London to find fame. More than this, though, speeches from the Council Leader Cllr Rishi Shori, Victoria's brother Chris Foote-Wood, and Reverend Kate McKenna from the Unitarian Church, all indicated the extent to which her brand of observational comedy drew heavily on the characters and turns of phrase she knew and overheard while growing up. The everyday culture of Northern life was, in other words, a fundamental source of inspiration and there was a keen sense that, as well as being Bury’s ‘most famous daughter’, the town could proudly claim her as one of 'their own' (in keeping with the concerns of campaigns like Mary on the Green and inVisibleabout the uneven gender spread of public monuments, Wood joins a short list of statues to women comedians. Another, to ‘Our Gracie’, Gracie Fields, is nearby in Rochdale).
This piece is a further contribution to the pantheon of such statues from the artist Graham Ibbeson, who is responsible for the Eric Morecambe statue which arguably ‘kicked-off’ the most recent phase of commemoration of figures from 20th century popular culture in 1999, as well as statues of Les Dawson in Lytham St Annes and Laurel and Hardy in Ulverston. Ibbeson is clearly a key figure in this story and his work on these monuments (and on others dedicated to iconic sporting heroes and Britain’s industrial heritage) strongly celebrates Northern working class culture. He has also been vocal in recognising the role that such monuments can play in democratising public art. Responding to earlier criticism of the trend for monuments to celebrities as a ‘vile pollutant’ of the contemporary landcape, for example, Ibbeson is sceptical of ‘some of the so-called intellectuals, the arts professionals who consider accessibility a crime against their minority’ (Threlkeld and Ibbeson, 2011: 152).
The addition of much-loved comedians, entertainers and athletes to the category of the ‘memorialisable’ does seem to be an opening up of that category, at least in comparison with the civic, military or political leaders which seemed to fill it in the past. While those statues might have been imposed on local populations without much consultation, contemporary monuments seem more likely to need to emerge from a prolonged and complex negotiation with various courts of public and aesthetic opinion. The creation of this particular statue seems to reveal the risks of this ‘democratisation’. On the plus side, money was raised through a crowd-funding campaign from local residents and fans instigated by Victoria’s brother and biographer, Chris Foote-Wood and finally co-ordinated and managed by Bury Council and her estate. More contentiously, an initial public vote on the design of the statue came down in favour of a depiction of Wood as the character of Bren from the sitcom dinnerladies, which proved controversial. When the eventual design – actually depicting Wood in a more iconic ‘stand-up’ mode - emerged, it was also subject to extensive scrutiny and critique, including through social media. It was notable that the speeches in the ceremony on Friday did not shy away from this controversy, with Wood’s brother being firm in his assertion that the family approved of the depiction and with Cllr Rishi Shori giving a thoughtful defence of the skill and craft of the sculptor, as well as a reflection on the difficulty of capturing a universally appreciated essence of a person who everyone feels they know through decades-long appearances on their front room TV screens. This is a theme I’d be keen to explore further as it points up some interesting tensions between an assumed limit of ‘popular taste’, linked to an apparent preference for ‘real’ depictions and the potential of monuments and public art in general to re-imagine and re-interpret its subjects and representations. The familiarity of fans and audiences, through TV or film, make this a challenge that contemporary sculptors of subjects from the ‘broadcast-era' might face that their predecessors did not.
It remains to be seen the extent to which this new statue is adopted and lived with by Bury residents – and it would be interesting to follow up on that in the project. Judging by the warmth of the response on Friday, though, I’d be optimistic that it will become as well loved as its subject.