Expectations were high when Dinnerladies began filming in 1997. After all, it was the creation of Victoria Wood, whose sketch shows and TV plays had made her one of the country's best-loved comedians.
Wood had known comedy would be her destiny ever since she was six, when she saw the legendary comic actress Joyce Grenfell on stage. She studied drama at university and found herself famous at 20 after charming Britain with her funny songs on a talent show called New Faces.
Perhaps surprisingly, it was only by the mid-90s that she felt she could tackle a full-fledged sitcom on her own. She deliberately chose a "mundane" setting (a factory canteen) which would lend itself to poignancy and subtle humour. But writing it would prove rather difficult, even for Victoria.
Dinnerladies was Wood's show through and through – as well as writing the scripts and starring in it, she even composed and sang the theme song.
She approached the sitcom via the characters rather than plots. So, rather than deciding on storylines and fitting the characters into them, she came up with the traits and foibles of each person, imagined how they would interact, and allowed the plots to develop from that.
For example, having decided that the character of Glenda would have a weak bladder, Wood built the very first episode around the fact that Glenda was trapped behind a large ladder and unable to get to the loo – with the rest of the dinnerladies trying to free her before a very messy accident ensued.
The fact that Dinnerladies was entirely Victoria's series, and that she had no script editor peering over her shoulder, proved a double-edged sword.
For a while, the freedom and power was liberating, and she managed to write the entire first series in a mere month. But then came the second series, and the responsibility of doing everything herself began to weigh on her. Her pace slowed down, and loneliness even began to set in.
"I nearly jacked it all in," she later recalled. "I thought it was very bad, and that I couldn't actually write comedy anymore."
Luckily she did manage to complete the second series – but it took her six months rather than one.
Practice makes perfect
The cast rehearsed each episode for a full week prior to recording and each episode was actually then filmed twice at BBC Television Centre, on two different evenings in front of two different live audiences.
The atmosphere on the evenings would differ according to the audience. As Wood later said, "Sometimes we'd have a load of screaming queens, and sometimes we'd have a load of OAPs from Purley."
Victoria would then see which of the two versions worked better – which garnered the most laughs, and had the actors on best form – and that would be the version that aired. The whole process of filming everything twice was utterly unique, and made production more expensive – yet it was allowed due to Victoria's status at the Beeb.
Getting out of the kitchen
Dinnerladies enjoyed rave reviews (even from the notoriously hard-to-please TV critic Tom Paulin) and viewers watched in their millions. Despite this, Wood very deliberately decided that no third series would happen.
In fact, even a second series was out of character for her. "I don't normally do anything twice," she explained. "But for this I felt I had to do more, as the first series felt like an experiment. I wanted to deepen and improve it."
Having completed two series, Wood was satisfied that it had run its course. Taking her cue from Fawlty Towers (which only totalled 12 episodes), she wanted to keep the sitcom short and sweet. And so it is.