Tracey Ullman: fewer people mistake me for Julie Walters these days

The veteran comedian is back – but how does she get inside 
the characters who make us laugh?

129527.20482cc1-d423-4174-b42d-df25f8efd344

Given the global upheavals of recent months it’s probably comforting for many to remember that we still have Tracey Ullman in our lives – the veteran comedian who is still making funny. She’s back on BBC1 with the second series of sketches and a roster of new celebrity impressions. Newbies include a workaholic Clare Balding, Bond-style villainess Nicola Sturgeon, a hapless Germaine Greer and the Rupert Murdoch clan (complete with wife Jerry Hall), reimagined
 as sunny 70s TV family the Brady Bunch. Old favourites such as Maggie Smith and the kleptomaniac Judi Dench are also back. 

Advertisement

They’re largely affectionate portraits of people Ullman likes and admires, with the exception, perhaps, of Rebekah Brooks, whom she portrayed fleeing angry Cotswold villagers who wanted her burned at the stake in series one.

“She deserves it,” says Ullman (slightly under her breath) of the newspaper executive who was at the centre of the News International phone-hacking scandal before being cleared of all charges at a criminal trial. Ullman says she had her own dealings with the Murdoch empire – in 1987 she told Rupert that she would only work for his Fox Broadcasting Company if he kept her out of the News of the World.

“He told me I was too boring,” she cackles. “Actually, I don’t hate anyone, I don’t hate. I also don’t want to be glib, I don’t want to be tribal. I’m more curious than anything and I was curious about Brooks in Chipping Norton, you know, with people whispering… But how that translates to being funny is the thing.”

129529.7928dbf5-8f4f-4f41-a060-633afefb2779

Tracey Ullman as Angela Merkel

Ullman, aged 57, has been funny for a very long time. An alternative comedy stalwart in the 1980s who was the first foreign female comic with a hit show on US TV, she is also the woman who discovered The Simpsons (and so much else).


Born in Slough, she still divides her time between London and the US where she lived for many years with her husband of 30 years, Allan McKeown, who died of prostate cancer in 2013. Her son Johnny is still based there (working as a writer on The Late Late Show with James Corden), while her daughter Mabel lives and works in Britain.

But it’s clear that Ullman is enjoying spending time back here more than ever before; working with British crews again after so many years across the pond. The fact that she can now say she pops to the shops more often is a boon (“No one ‘pops’ to the shops in America!”); and she’s delighted to find that fewer strangers think she’s Julie Walters than a year ago.

“Yes, a few people do think I’m Brenda Blethyn. Or in taxis they go, ‘Oh, I’ve got a cousin like you, she’s mental an’ all.’ You know, if you were Meryl Streep they’d go, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to tell you how much you’ve meant to my life!’ Which must be exhausting. With me they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, she’s bleedin’ mad, ain’t she?’ ”

129528.856336fd-0af3-47e2-bb6f-f1f8b200c850

Ullman playing Adele

“Coming home last year felt like a bit of a personal triumph,” says the performer, whose mother died in a house-fire accident 15 months after she lost Allan. “Working for the first time without my husband, it was a difficult time in my life, personally and emotionally.

“I had worked with him for so long, and it’s getting back to doing what you do, it’s life-affirming and feeling fun and enjoy
ing it so much again and working with such amazing people… It was great.” Making her BBC1 series, putting on the make-up, as she puts it, and “dissolving” into her characters also made her realise that she could be doing this into her 80s “if I’ve still got all my marbles”.

As a woman who has never
 hidden her liberal political views, she 
also thinks the world needs a satirical laugh now more than ever, and slaps 
the table to insist that the puppet satire show Spitting Image “must” come back to the airwaves.

And though she steadfastly refuses ever to use what she calls “the ‘D’ words – depressed, devastated, despair” – she is all too aware of another – Donald. But even she has not given up on the US president.

“People change. People come to different conclusions, you know? Eight years ago Glenn Beck [a host on the Fox News Channel] was a rabid Republican and hated everybody, and he just said, ‘Obama changed me completely and I don’t feel that way any more.’

“So you have to have faith in human nature, and the world, and then try and make it funny… I mean, I just know there will be a woman president in the next four years and it will be Kim Kardashian.”

Advertisement

Tracey Ullman’s Show is on tonight at 9.30pm on BBC1