Who's That Girl?
Sunday June 14,2009
COMEDIENNE Tracey Ullman wears many disguises in her new smash-hit US TV show. British-born Tracey speaks to SANDRO MONETTI about how she’s become a big star in America but can’t sell her series in the UK.
She’s Britain’s most successful comedy export but Tracey Ullman risks becoming a forgotten figure back home.
For no UK channel has bought her latest smash-hit US series, State Of The Union, and the snub has wiped the smile off the comedienne’s face.
Stateside success has brought Ullman a personal fortune of £75million, making her our wealthiest comic, but it seemingly can’t buy her respect in Britain.
“We’re struggling to sell the show to the BBC,” admits Tracey, 49.
“Maybe it’s just not sexy enough for the current TV climate there now.”
The series – in which she hilariously impersonates stars like Renée Zellweger, Helen Mirren and even David Beckham, as well as a series of American stereotypes – seems perfect for the YouTube generation with its fast-paced, fun sketches but it hasn’t sufficiently impressed bosses at the BBC who gave Ullman her start in Eighties shows like Three Of A Kind.
Yet the Beeb has been badly wrong about her comedic instincts before – most notably when they screened her first US series, The Tracey Ullman Show, in 1987.
That one featured the TV debut of animation sensations The Simpsons, who appeared in short films between the sketches.
Ullman recalled: “The BBC said the only thing they didn’t like about the show was those weird little animated characters and suggested maybe they could get rid of them because they would never catch on.”
Tracey won that battle and The Simpsons spun off into their own show which, 20 series later, has become the longest-running series in US television history.
Having been there at the beginning, Tracey also gets an annual share of the show’s profits and that’s what is largely responsible for her huge wealth.
Like The Simpsons, she has been a constant fixture on US screens for the past two decades, in her own shows and specials, in TV guest roles ranging from playing Ally McBeal’s therapist to a dog trainer on The Simpsons, and also in movies including Small Time Crooks and Plenty, but she is getting the best reviews of her career for State Of The Union, a comedic look at her adopted country’s obsession with celebrities, which is now in its second series.
Tracey, who has lived in America for 25 years, recently became a US citizen and feels that fact has freed her up to be funnier. She explains: “I feel I can say a little bit more about the country now that I feel a part of it and can do so without the fear of being carted off to Guantanamo Bay.”
Although she mocks America on screen, she has a great deal of affection for the country in which her show business dreams have come true.
“It’s a very ‘can do’ society. In Britain you hear a lot of ‘that’ll never work’ but here people are willing to take risks.”
She is the only foreign comedienne to have success on US TV and, as such, Ullman is something of a standard bearer for aspirational Brits in Hollywood.
Tracey was an inspirational figure for Nigel Lythgoe, the British choreographer, TV producer and Popstars judge who in this decade became a major figure in US TV as producer of American Idol and judge on So You Think You Can Dance.
He says: “I choreographed Tracey on Three Of A Kind back in England and I believe that her success in America inspired so many of us Brits to believe we could also make a career for ourselves in that wonderful country.”
Last month Lythgoe, along with the likes of Cat Deeley, Russell Brand, Peter Kay and Sharon Osbourne, was in the audience when Tracey received the Charlie Chaplin Career Achievement Award at the British Comedy Festival in Los Angeles.
Humbled and thrilled by the honour, Ullman said: “It’s a lovely thing and a nice achievement that makes me think about all I’ve done and how far I’ve come.”
The Slough-born star enjoys triumphs now but it was a tragedy that first made her a performer.
When she was six-year-old her father, Antony, suffered a heart attack while reading her a bedtime story and died.
To cheer up her distraught mother, Dorin, Tracey would put on shows in her mother’s bedroom. She would draw the curtains, use the windowsill as a stage and Dorin would sit on the bed laughing.
At 12, Tracey enrolled at the Italia Conti stage school where she developed her singing, dancing, acting and comedic talents.
Soon after leaving she joined the Second Generation dance troupe, graduated into West End musical roles and then moved into comedy and was spotted by the BBC.
They cast her in sketch shows A Kick Up The Eighties, with Rik Mayall, and then the hugely popular Three Of A Kind, alongside Lenny Henry and David Copperfield.
She followed that with ITV sitcom Girls On Top, co-starring Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.
Tracey also launched a successful pop career despite having a voice that Melody Maker described as “Minnie Mouse mixed with the Supremes”.
She had three top 10 hits in 1983 with Breakaway, They Don’t Know and Move Over Darling.
Her records were popular in America too and the fun videos had lots of play on MTV, which brought her to the attention of talent-spotting Hollywood producers. A
mong them was James L Brooks, who created The Tracey Ullman Show for her and saw it become an instant hit.
Ullman had moved to LA with her British husband – Auf Wiedersehen Pet producer Allan McKeown – to make the show and they are still there now, and still happy after 25 years of marriage.
Tracey says of her husband: “He’s the funny one in our house. He can’t sing, he can’t dance, he can’t act but he’s hilarious.”
The couple have two children, Mabel, 23, and Jon, 17.
She worked with Allan on a string of other acclaimed shows, including Tracey Takes On and A Class Act, which made her a beloved figure in US comedy.
Ullman has won America’s most coveted TV award, the Emmy, seven times and been inducted into the country’s Museum of Television.
Yet her greatest triumph could be her latest one. US critics reviewing State Of The Union have compared her work in it to the likes of Lenny Bruce and Robin Williams at their best.
If the show doesn’t get seen in Britain, Tracey won’t have a Susan Boyle-style meltdown over it.
She says: “I’m not some sad psychological case. I’m a pretty sensible person. I like to sit and watch documentaries on TV and knit. I’m quite happy to be me.”
The star of State Of The Union is also happy about the state of her career.
She smiles: “I’ve come a long way from my mother’s windowsill.”