Tracey Ullman: ‘I couldn’t tell a joke to save my life. I want to be taken seriously’

The actor and comedian, on Desert Island Discs, tells of her push for non-comic roles and how she stole a note from Kirsty MacColl

Tracey Ullman does not regret playing characters of different ethnicity in her comedy shows in Britain and America, but would not do so again. “No, I wouldn’t do it,” she said. “It would be different now. But I don’t regret anything or apologise for anything. Just move onwards.”

The actor and impressionist from Slough, Berkshire, first made her name on television in the BBC show Three of a Kind, alongside Lenny Henry and David Copperfield, in the early 1980s.

She looks back on this show with pride, she said on Sunday’s Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4, although many of the jokes now seem “terrible”. She asked for equal billing with her male co-stars and refused to play a “traffic warden” or “sexy girl in a bikini”, the kind of roles in sketches offered to women at the time in other popular mainstream television comedy.

David Copperfield, Tracey Ullman and Lenny Henry.
Ullman, centre, with her Three of a Kind co-stars David Copperfield, left, and Lenny Henry. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

Ullman, 61, also revealed how her family kept the death of her father from her when she was six, despite the fact he had collapsed as he read her a story one evening. “He became unwell and an ambulance came. I think I knew that he passed away. My family dealt with it in a way you just would not deal with grief now. Nobody talked about it.”

The move to America in the late 1980s with her husband, the producer Alan McKeown, who died in 2013, was necessary for both their careers, Ullman believes. She was the star of her own TV show in America, where she helped introduce the most famous cartoon series of recent years to viewers, giving it a slot on the programme. “Yes, I breastfed the yellow people. I am very proud of launching The Simpsons. It was an extraordinary thing.”

Ullman said she finds her new comic personas by looking for the sadness and bravery inside people. She explained how she travelled around the US, talking to strangers and taking pictures to gain inspiration.

She also reveals that a high note on her hit 1983 single They Don’t Know, written by Kirsty MacColl, was taken from MacColl’s own version because Ullman could not reach it.

Her straight acting role as feminist icon Betty Friedan alongside Cate Blanchett and Rose Byrne in the television series Mrs America was hard won, Ullman admits. “I was the last person to be cast because there’s still a perception of me as a wacky, zany comedian, and that’s not what I do. I started out as a character actress and going into comedy was just a fluke. I couldn’t tell a joke to save my life. I want to be taken seriously.”


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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