Tracey Ullman: I Had to Wear Fatsuit to Play Judi Dench and Being Dame Maggie Smith Was HardThe top impersonator is returning to UK screens after 30 years with a new six-part show on BBC1
It’s been 30 years since Tracey Ullman last graced our TV screens, but now the British comedy queen who conquered America is about to make her historic UK return.
And this time, she promises that no celeb, not even Dame Maggie Smith, will be safe.
In fact, the sharp-tongued comedy legend says her impressions are so near the mark, she’s terrified to incur the wrath of some of the biggest names in showbiz.
Tracey says: “I wanted to do a series of national treasures, which I think we have in England... I hope that they don’t hate me for this.”
And she might need to cross her fingers, especially as she admits wearing a fatsuit to play Judi Dench.
Three of a kind: Tracy with Lenny Henry and David Copperfield
She was watched by millions and, in 1983, she launched a music career, reaching No2 with They Don’t Know – only missing out on the top spot to Culture Club’s Karma Chameleon.
Other hits included Breakaway and My Guy, which had then Labour leader Neil Kinnock in the video.
Of course, it wasn’t long before the bright lights of Hollywood lured the Buckinghamshire-born funnygirl across the Atlantic to launch The Tracey Ullman Show – an instant hit that made her the richest British female comic and the second highest paid British actress in the world.
Love: In 2003 with late husband Allan McKeown
But they stayed together for three decades until Allan died from prostate cancer in December 2013, just three days before their 30th anniversary.
Now Tracey, 56, concentrates on her children; Johnny McKeown, 27, a writer for James Corden ’s Late Late Show and daughter Mabel, 29, who worked as former Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman’s assistant and is now a charity director.
Jokin' with Neil Kinnock in My Guy video
And as she makes her long-awaited reurn with a six-part BBC series, Tracey reveals why she’s not worried about ageing gracefully, and how she gets mistaken for Julie Walters...
Are you looking forward to being back on British TV?
I was thrilled to be asked and I’ve had a wonderful year doing it all.
I just feel really privileged to get an opportunity to do this at this time in my career, and in England, where it matters to me so much that people enjoy what I do. It feels really lovely coming home.
There have been some extraordinary sketch comedy shows in the last 10 years. Catherine Tate is just brilliant. But there haven’t been any for a while so it seemed like a good chance to have a go.
I think a sketch show is great for the YouTube mentality as people will watch things for 30 seconds and move on. In America about five years ago I did Renee Zellweger - more people downloaded that clip than watched the show.
National treasure: Julie Walters
What’s it like being back in the UK?
I am always anonymous. I go to the BBC and people think I’m Julie Walters!
Do you still look back at the Three of a Kind videos?
I never look back on anything; I never watch myself. But I remember loving doing it.
How did you start impersonating people?
It used to be in my mum’s bedroom when I was a little kid. I used to put her nightdresses on and I’d be Judy Garland. It’s what I love to do. I’ll do it until I’m 90.
Which was the hardest transformation to achieve?
I wanted to do a series of national treasures, which I think we have in England. Maggie Smith’s really hard, I don’t know if we quite got the look right, but I think it’s really interesting to know that Maggie was Kenneth Williams’ flatmate years ago. You listen to her voice and think maybe it rubbed off on her. And who knew Judi Dench was a kleptomaniac? I hope they take it in the right spirit! I don’t think they’re aware that I’ve impersonated them, but I’m sure they’ll find out. I hope that they don’t hate me for this.
Copycat: Tracey as 80s pop star Toyah Wilcox
Would you ever consider having cosmetic surgery?
I haven’t got looks to lose, that’s my theory. I looked like a troll when I was six, I look like a troll now. There’s not a lot you can do about it.
Do the costumes take a long time to get into?
For Judi I had a bit of body padding so I had to wear a cooling device - I was attached to a tube that would cool me down. You just have to be patient and just relax when you’re in that stuff, because sometimes you can panic a bit.
You do Judi and Maggie in the new show, who else is in the line of fire?
I’m fascinated by Angela Merkel, I imagine she’s someone that has to be with men all the time, in these rooms having meetings and I wondered what she’s like when she’s with her best friend and they just talk about hair and make-up?’ I also pay tribute to Rebecca Brooks.
Meetings: Angela Merkel
Did you also sing the theme tune to the new show?
Yes! I love singing, it was a bit of a laugh in the 80s but then I promised my children I would never, ever release another song because they’re so embarrassed by me.
You’ve had an amazingly long career, what are you most proud of?
Longevity! Just keeping going, keeping working. And my children are extraordinary, I am so proud of them. They’re great English-American hybrid people and very supportive.
Your children have gone on to be huge successes in their own right haven’t they?
Yes, my son is working in the writers’ room on James Corden’s Late Late show in LA and he’s having a wonderful time. His father was a great producer and he learned a lot from him. Obviously I’m a bit biased but I think the kid’s a genius! My daughter works for a medical charity right now, she’s very involved in politics and wants to be a politician. She worked in the Houses of Parliament for five years and is doing very well.
Do you have any regrets from your years in showbiz?
I wish I’d got to No1 – but Karma Chameleon hung on. I wish Boy George had let me. When Kid Jensen announced I still hadn’t made number one, I was really p****d off. I mean, I wore that pink lurex miniskirt for WEEKS. With all the dry ice on flipping Top of the Pops, and I still didn’t make it. It still hurts. How did working with your late husband help your career? The ability to just do my own thing came from working with him. He was an extraordinary influence on me and on what I achieved.
Will you date again?
Oh, who knows?
Tracey Ullman’s Show starts on January 11, 10.35pm, BBC1.