Tracey Ullman gets set to begin her imitation game
In the animal kingdom, being able to mimic the look, behaviour or sound of a more dangerous creature can mean the difference between life and death.
This lesson is not lost on British comedian Tracey Ullman, a woman of a thousand faces, whose gift for mimicry and portraying oddball characters has helped to secure her survival in the showbiz jungle since childhood.
Yes, the British girl who started out by slipping into her mother’s nightie to do Judy Garland impressions at the age of 6, is back at age 56 with Tracey Ullman’s Show – her first BBC series in almost three decades. It begins tomorrow on ITV Choice.
“It’s fantastic to be back [at] the BBC,” says Ullman. “It’s a solid half-hour. I had a wonderful time making all these shows.”
With a personal fortune estimated at £77 million (Dh398.50m), Britain’s richest female comic obviously loves to perform. And this time around, she delivers her unique take on some of the extraordinary characters who live in or pass through the United Kingdom.
Be prepared for treats such as a shoplifting Dame Judi Dench, a dangerously accident-prone massage therapist, and Sally Preston, a feminist member of parliament whose risqué pre-election pledge presents a few challenges.
Ullman also presents a foot-tapping love song to Britain’s libraries, shows us German chancellor Angela Merkel and the Duchess of Cornwall as you’ve never seen them before, and has a raft of guest-star appearances throughout the six-episode series. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like for distinguished actress Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey, The Lady in the Van, the Harry Potter series) to audition for a cheesy sci-fi series, or what happens when Camilla Parker Bowles agrees to babysit Prince George, you won’t be disappointed. With the help of genius make-up and prosthetics, Ullman first builds the character around her face, then inhabits the “shell” and lets loose with fresh perceptions and situations to surprise and delight viewers.
“I’m using them as Trojan horses, really,” says the seven-time Emmy-winning actress, Golden Globe winner and recipient, in 2009, of the first Bafta Los Angeles Charlie Chaplin Lifetime Achievement Award for Comedy.
“I’m Angela Merkel. I want to be her. I like the way she moves her arms – and I had a suit specially made,” says Ullman.
“I wanted to see her with a lady friend and talking about hair and make-up and going to accessorise and buying flip-flops, because she’s always with guys – in a room with Putin and Cameron and Berlusconi – and I very much admire her.
“All of my impersonations are just meant as homages to people, and with great affection.”
Her impersonation of Dench is so spot on that, for a second or two, you can’t be sure she is not the real deal.
Her performance easily transcends the make-up thanks to her mastery of posture, gesture and facial control as well as pitch- perfect vocals.
“We were filming [a Dench sketch] in Richmond and people were going by and thinking we were filming a bit from a new Bond film,” she says. “It’s really flattering.”
Ullman’s biting comedy is often attributed to the fact that she is famously class-conscious, a Labour Party supporter and no fan of the royal family.
Her solicitor father died when she was 6, leaving her family to struggle as they tumbled down the social ladder in South London. But Ullman found her muse, started performing in school plays and persevered.
She first came to the attention of television viewers on the BBC Scotland sketch shows A Kick Up the Eighties (1981 to 1984), which also helped launch the careers of Rik Mayall (The Young Ones, The New Statesman) and Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies). Ullman had a more prominent role in another sketch show, Three of a Kind (1981 to 1983), alongside comedians Lenny Henry and David Copperfield. About this time, she also had five top-40 pop hits in the UK. Then she set her sights on Hollywood, where her fame hit an international high with The Tracey Ullman Show, which ran on the Fox network from 1987 to 1990. It also introduced the world to The Simpsons, through a series of animated shorts.
Tracey Takes On… (HBO, 1996 to 1999) and Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union (Showtime, 2008 to 2010) further cemented her reputation.
Her new show also represents a very personal comeback: her husband, TV producer Allan McKeown, died at home of prostate cancer three days before their 30th anniversary on Christmas Eve in 2013, and her 85-year-old mother died in a fire last March.
Courage and fearlessness, however, have always been woven into Ullman’s psyche – along with a healthy disdain for political correctness.
“I’ve done really big, bold things in my career,” she says. “I saw Eddie Murphy play a white woman in the 1980s – and I said I wanted to be a black woman on my [US] show. Everyone was like, ‘Oh, we can’t do that’ – and we did it and it was great and it worked.”
• Tracey Ullman’s Show begins at 5.30pm tomorrow on ITV Choice, which is exclusive to OSN