One of America’s most successful comic actors is back in Britain. Tracey Ullman tells Nigel Farndale why
At Tracey Ullman’s suggestion, we meet at a private member’s club around the corner from her home in Mayfair. In some ways this salubrious venue seems an appropriate setting, because according to the Sunday Times Rich List, the 55-year-old comic actor is worth £75m.
But in other ways it does not. The club is one of those places where you find yourself talking in muted voices so as not to disturb other members, and this doesn’t suit the voluble personality I’ve encountered in YouTube clips of Ullman on chat shows down the years. In those she’s very full on, an extrovert who seems more American than British, not least because she became a US citizen in 2006, after 20 years of living there.
She did this because she wanted to get the right to vote in presidential elections, but she still keeps a British passport and remains an active member of the Labour party (a good friend of Neil Kinnock, no less). She describes herself as a hybrid. “We’ve always come and gone as we’ve been allowed, taxwise,” she says in a voice that evokes her roots in Slough.
Although Ullman insists she enjoys her anonymity in London – “I can observe people on the tube without them recognising me” – she is still recognisable if you are old enough to remember her BBC shows from the early 80s. A few greying hairs at the temples, perhaps, and at one point she reaches in her handbag for reading glasses, but she hasn’t changed much. She puts this down to her daughter encouraging her to run half-marathons, but she has “always been fit, from being a dancer. And I’ve never had plastic surgery.” As she points out: “It’s always men who do the surgery, so it’s their idea of beauty, not a woman’s idea. Age with dignity is my thing – go grey.”
It was after she made her name here in TV comedy shows with Lenny Henry (Three of a Kind), Rik Mayall (A Kick up the Eighties) and French and Saunders (Girls on Top) that Ullman moved to America and found a much giddier level of fame with The Tracey Ullman Show. Aside from winning her an armful of Emmys and Golden Globes, this sketch show was the first commercial hit for the fledgling Fox network, hailing her as a female Peter Sellers. The show also launched a certain yellow cartoon family on the world: “I suppose the only way younger people in the UK might have heard of me now is if they’re fans of The Simpsons – my show was where it started. Dan [Castellaneta, the voice of Homer] and Julie [Kavner, Marge] were on the show when Matt [Groening, the creator of The Simpsons] came in and pitched.”
‘Age with dignity is my thing’: a scene from her new show.
‘Age with dignity is my thing’: a scene from her new show. Photograph: Craig Topham/BBC
To be given her own show was liberating. “As a woman on British TV at that time you could be a Benny Hill girl and that was about it,” she says. But she never stopped feeling British, even when most of her audience thought she was American.
Her children reflect her dual identity. Her son Johnny lives in LA and works as a writer on The Late Late Show with James Corden. Her daughter Mabel used to work for Harriet Harman and stood as a Labour candidate in the last election , but didn’t win. “I did a lot of campaigning with Mabel and Harriet,” Ullman recalls. “Harriet says things like: ‘Well, that’s not going to butter anyone’s parsnips, and you can use that as a quote.’”
It was during the election that Ullman started making a new six-part comedy show for the BBC, which very evidently considers it a great coup to get Ullman back after 30 years. Tony Hall, the director-general, turned up to watch rehearsals, and even when we meet the material is being very carefully guarded (I’m shown the first episode on a laptop in another room before meeting Ullman).
The best moments are uncanny impersonations – Dame Judi Dench as a shoplifter, Dame Maggie Smith doing audition tapes and Angela Merkel as a vain and frivolous woman about town. “Merkel is always surrounded by men in suits,” Ullman says, slipping into a German accent. “I vanted to write a sketch with her being very feminine, confiding to her friend who does her hair and make-up that she doesn’t vant to look ‘too sexy’.”
Ullman is entertaining, engaging, slipping in and out of voices, though at times she can seem more vulnerable, a little ill at ease. Until I tell her I enjoyed watching the new show she keeps drawing herself back in her chair and narrowing her eyes at me. For a while I put it down to our having to talk in subdued voices, but I eventually realise that hardly anyone has seen a preview and she has been waiting to hear my thoughts; the relief is palpable. “It was horrible waiting for your verdict,” she responds, putting a funny veneer on things by adopting a doctor’s voice. “‘I’ve seen your X-rays and there is a dark shadow in one corner.’ That’s what it felt like!”
Labour gains: with Neil Kinnock in Ullman’s My Guy video in 1984
Labour gains: with Neil Kinnock in Ullman’s My Guy video in 1984.
Perhaps her humorous energy seems slightly tainted because her return to British comedy comes at a time of great sadness in her life. In December 2013 her husband Allan McKeown, a British TV producer, died of prostate cancer, three days before the couple’s 30th wedding anniversary, and last year her mother Doreen died in a fire at her retirement home caused by a discarded cigarette. An inquest ruled the death to be accidental.
It becomes clear as we talk about these events that the extrovert side – the entertainer who craves attention – is masking a version of herself that’s more introverted and uncertain. And to some extent it seems comedy has proved a coping strategy. “I did throw myself into work when my mother died,” she says. “It was a good distraction. But I had already agreed to do the new show, and it was a year on from my husband dying. Coming back to the UK was part of that – I sold our house in LA because it reminded me too much of him. I’d had a long time living with someone very ill there.” She lowers her eyes. “I miss him so much. I was younger than him [by 15 years], but even so I’ve been left [on my own] younger than I thought I’d be.”
She admits that life didn’t really begin for her until she met McKeown in 1982 and that he was the one who made her feel brave enough to try new things. When Charlotte Moore, the controller of BBC1, approached Ullman with the idea of doing a new show she agreed partly because he would have wanted her to do it.
‘I miss him so much’: with her late husband Allan McKeown, who died in 2013.
‘I miss him so much’: with her late husband Allan McKeown, who died in 2013. Photograph: David Livingston/Getty Images
“He was the funny one in our family, not me,” she says. “He was so droll.” McKeown certainly had a good comedy pedigree, having created the groundbreaking Witzend Productions with the sitcom writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. His hits included Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and the feature film of Porridge; his circle of friends included Peter Cook.
He also produced some of his wife’s shows in America, which continued off and on for 15 years. But Ullman’s drive to carry on working seemed to dim somewhat after McKeown made a fortune from the sale of his cable channel SelecTV, a source of wealth which the couple added to by “flipping” high-value properties in LA. (Contrary to what some suppose, their wealth didn’t come from her involvement with The Simpsons – in fact she once sued that show for a share of its merchandising profits and lost.) Together they seem to have made a formidable and profitable team and it’s telling that she still refers to her husband as if he were still alive: “It’s been extraordinary what has happened to both of us, my husband and me. I never take it for granted. Money is freedom. I’m not excessive or flash. I live well. What can I say? It’s great. But some of the reports about how much I have, you know the Sunday Times Rich List – they are just hilarious. I don’t know where they get their figures from. It used to amuse my husband, who liked to keep them guessing. Whenever someone suggested a figure he would say: ‘Don’t be ridiculous – we’re worth much more than that.’”
Though she makes light of her wealth, I can’t help feeling she finds it embarrassing. New Labour may have been “intensely relaxed with people getting filthy rich”, but she is Old Labour, or at least the version of Labour exemplified by Kinnock. Their friendship began after he appeared in one of her pop videos in 1984. “His daughter liked my records, so he agreed. At the time it was very controversial. I don’t know whether it would be done with a political leader even now.”
Ullman’s politics had a lot to do with her impoverished childhood. Her father, a Polish émigré who worked as a travel agent, died of a heart attack while reading her a bedtime story when she was six. In an effort to cheer her family up, Ullman put on shows in her mother’s bedroom, standing on the windowsill performing alongside her older sister Patty. “My mother had a tough time after my father died; our fortunes came and went. She married again, which was odd for us as children. Thanks to our Labour council I got a grant to go to stage school at 12 and I became very independent. I left home at 16 to become a dancer in Berlin.”
In recent months Ullman and her sister have been digging out old photographs of their mother and reminiscing. She insists that there was never any sibling rivalry between them, but says Patty was always the “glamorous one. She was even a Playboy bunny at one point, although I think it was more a case of her being in charge of the till because she had trained as an accountant. I was the funny one who looked like a troll and could make people laugh – I was always told I was odd.”
The comment makes me wonder whether her old insecurities have been resurfacing since her mother died. She tells me that during the recording of her new show she realised she was making it as a sort of tribute to her mother, and when I ask if she sometimes finds herself hiding behind her impersonations, she concedes there is some truth in that. “In private I’m quiet. I spend all my time watching BBC4 documentaries and knitting.” (She’s not joking – she has written a book on the subject.) But even when she lived in Hollywood she says she led a fairly tame existence. “I never went to the parties, just worked and played tennis. We didn’t do drugs or all the showbiz stuff. I was signed to Stiff Records when I started out and I used to enjoy wearing my ‘If it ain’t Stiff it ain’t worth a fuck’ T-shirt in the supermarket just to shock people.” She would find herself being drawn to any expat punks who came to live in LA, such as the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones. “His dirty secret was that he loved REO Speedwagon and Peters & Lee.”
She hasn’t cut her ties with LA. She still does the odd film, most recently Into the Woods with Meryl Streep, an actor she first worked with in 1985 in Plenty (her other credits include Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter and Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks and Bullets over Broadway). Ask how she would refer to herself and she will say she’s a “comic actor” (not a standup; she doesn’t write). “My face is a good one for doing impersonations,” she surmises, turning again to self-deprecation. “I’ve got small eyes, a low brow and a big head.” She laughs.“When I worked at the BBC in the 80s the only wigs that would fit me were Mike Yarwood’s.” It seems a happy if disconcerting note on which to end, the American citizen indulging in some very British self-deprecation.