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

ONLY a few minutes into talking to Tracey Ullman and she's already given me a dozen different accents. There's a posh little boy who reads the Financial Times. A cockney girl who wants a fat little baby. A spaced-out kid who wants to go to the moon. A Geordie on a phone-in selling a golf club. And a Tory MP who wants her put in the Tower for being rude about the Royal Family. They are quite funny, but the one voice you keep wanting to hear is her own.

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.

(Photographs omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all