TELEVISION / How to get away from the class system, or not: Tracey Ullman is big in America and back in Britain. Robert Butler met her
Sunday 03 January 1993
Tracey Ullman has a lot of accents and lately they've been American. She left England in 1984, and by the end of the decade Fox TV's The Tracey Ullman Show had won three Emmy awards. This week, with A Class Act, a one-off sketch show about the class system, she returns to British television.
The director Alan Parker gave her the idea over lunch in Los Angeles. They were swapping notes on how struck they are by the class system whenever they go home. Parker suggested Ullman do a comedy where she played all the classes. It's an idea that sounds fun to make. A Class Act proves Ullman can do all the classes: a perfect demo tape, that leaves you feeling, well, yes, so.
We met in her husband's office-cum-terraced house in Mayfair, just behind the Hilton. There is a pram in the hall, and her daughter Mabel is sitting on the swivel chair in front of the computer. Upstairs her husband, the television producer Allan McKeown, whose credits include Auf Wiedersehen Pet and Shine on Harvey Moon, is in a creative meeting. 'My husband was a Vidal Sassoon hairdresser in the Sixties,' says Ullman, when we get on to class, 'And all the posh birds just loved it that Allan talked liked that.' On talked like that the accent tumbles downmarket. We're in the drawing-room, a picture of respectability, right down to the silver-framed photograph of the family-of-four on the mantelpiece.
'I like people who are trying to be a different class,' Ullman says, 'Trying to speak nicely when they're really not, rather than letting it all go.' She heads upmarket on speaking nicely and downmarket on letting it all go. 'My mother always insisted on middle-class because we had money at one time. We're really lower-middle.' Well, maybe once.
Tracey Ullman was born in Slough, 32 years ago. Her mother is English; her father, who died when she was six, was a Polish emigre. She went to the Italia Conti stage school and appeared, aged 13, on The Tommy Steele Show. In 1981 she won the London Theatre Critics' Award for Most Promising Newcomer, playing a singer in a suburban nightclub in Four in a Million, an improvised play by Les Blair, who also directs A Class Act. The television series that followed, A Kick Up The Eighties and Three of A Kind with Lenny Henry and David Copperfield, showed her skills as a kooky all-rounder: singer, dancer and comedian. She had three songs in the Top Ten in 1983, and three more songs, none in the Top Ten, in 1984. By then Ullman was looking for comedy that was something other than alternative. 'There were a lot of people doing comedy who weren't really acting. I always felt I was an actress. I was never a stand-up.' In the film of David Hare's Plenty, she played Meryl Streep's friend, and her impish, wide-eyed performance left Streep struggling for the viewer's attention.
She went to Hollywood, had Mabel, and got down to learning the accents. While she is happy to describe herself as 'a bit of a Higgins', theories and voice coaches get in the way. 'If I'm going to do a Queens accent,' she says, 'I ring a car showroom in Queens and pretend I'm going to buy a car.' She also put herself through a diet of classic American comedy under the tutelage of James Brooks, who made Terms of Endearment. Traditionally, prime-time American comedy is different: employing more character, more story, more writers, and less vitriol. Brooks pulled in writers from Cheers, Taxi, Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore and they wrote her 65 shows over four seasons. A huge output compared to the six half-hour shows that a British comedian might do. She went the same route as Dudley Moore: from medium-sized fish in a small pool, to big fish in a big pool.
As she sits on a sofa between two windows, it's hard to see her face. The long black hair comes down in a fringe. Her tone is wary and polite. My cuttings, requested in advance, sit on a sidetable. She is only over for two weeks; she has the day off while her co-star, Michael Palin, plays a seven-year-old. She shows me production photos of herself as a Benenden-style schoolgirl, a male air steward and a lower-middle class mum. They look dangerously unfunny. Her 1983 album You Broke My Heart in 17 Places featured seven photos of her funny faces on the cover. If she has a trademark, it's never pulling the same face twice.
She plays black and white too. 'That was a big thing for us because Eddie Murphy had been white. I couldn't do it until I got all the make-up on. I kept singing Aretha Franklin songs. I got very carried away.' The props guy bumped into her backstage and told her to get out the way. She drove over to where her director lives. 'He didn't know who I was. He thought I was someone coming about a cleaning job.'
With prosthetics as good as that, it's no wonder Fox found it hard selling Ullman's own personality to the American public. To get over this, Ullman talked to the audience in an English accent at the end of the show, telling them about her husband and kids. Some of them thought it was another accent. 'They didn't know I was English. They thought I was from Texas.' Fox also shot her at home cooking apple pie, 'to make the public warm to me.'
She is frank about what works. Her recent film I Love You To Death, co-starring Kevin Kline and directed by Lawrence (Big Chill) Kasdan, didn't. 'We were all on different levels.' Her next chance is a musical, with songs by Prince, which she says keeps changing its title. 'I'm not in the glamour stakes,' she says, thankfully, 'But I can still get a table in a restaurant. Put it that way.' She sent Woody Allen a tape of her work and he replied that it was not a question of if they worked together but when. She adds, 'That was four years ago.' He said she was 'funny from the inside'. She is naturally proud of the compliment, but when challenged, didn't know what it meant. For her frequent and successful appearances on the David Letterman Show, she prepares her lines and adopts a Cockney accent. 'I would hate not to know what to say. That would terrify me.' As she says, 'I don't excel at being myself, I really don't'
'A Class Act': ITV Sat, 10-10.50pm.
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