Monday, June 25, 2018

More Praise: Tracey Ullman and Satire in the Age of Trump and Brexit

The comedian has scored a hit with Tracey Breaks the News. Stephen Armstrong explores how she’s honed her satirical edge — and stayed up to the minute

Stephen Armstrong

Double trouble: Tracey Ullman as Theresa May and Michael Gove

The Sunday Times, June 24 2018, 12:01am 

It’s a great time to be doing satire when the world is on a knife edge,” says the British comedian John Oliver, host of HBO’s weekly show Last Week Tonight. Yet Brexit Britain struggled to find its satirical voice — until Tracey Breaks the News, Tracey Ullman’s surprisingly good sketch show, which ended its run last weekend.

Created for a one-off election special, Ullman’s mocking impression of Theresa May struck a chord with viewers, who begged for its return. Series one stumbled into the light last autumn. Series two proved spikier, sharper and crueller, with a boozy Duchess of Cornwall making a hash of looking after her grandchildren and an almost disturbing take on Michael Gove offering to help a blind lady cross the road — straight into traffic.

“I promised to help her across the road,” he says, “then realised I could not in all good conscience help her.” As a horrified passer-by screams “Why?”, he replies: “I think the fact that I took a difficult and unpopular decision proves that I am a man of principle.”

Some sketches are deft wordplay, while others — about Russian agents sneaking into the White House to reprogram the malfunctioning sexbot Melania, then watching hopelessly as she repeatedly bangs into the wall — are pure slapstick.

In the same series, Jeremy Corbyn earnestly explains how he would solve Labour’s anti-semitism problem: “I’ve spoken to every single anti-semite. . . and I’ve told them in no uncertain terms — ‘Tone it down a bit’.”

This last sketch so outraged activists for Momentum, the Corbynite pressure group, they claimed the Jewish comedian David Baddiel must have written it. “I see @Baddiel wrote Tracey Ullman’s Corbyn sketch last night. More BBC propaganda masquerading as satire,” wrote the actor, writer and Corbyn supporter Dylan Strain. As Baddiel doesn’t write for the show, Strain had effectively proved Ullman’s point.

How did she nail it in the second series? Tracey Ullman’s Show, in 2016, was a mediocre return to the BBC after the comedian, who was born in Slough in 1959, had spent 30 years in America. Aimless skits about topless feminist MPs, overzealous zoo ­keepers, hopeless baristas and failed app developers did not initially impress.

As Jeremy Corbyn

For Tracey Breaks the News, the producer Caroline Norris and the director Dominic Brigstocke turned to the Spitting Image alumnus Giles Pilbrow to help revamp the writing team and record the most topical skits in the week of transmission. “The problem,” Norris explains, “was that satire shows such as Dead Ringers have a big cast, but Tracey needs to be in every sketch, so we can’t shoot every­thing in the week of transmission.”

For season two, the show recorded its general skits — the help group for people who are just too “woke”, or the woman trying to introduce a workplace #MeToo movement — at the end of May. It then moved into a week-of-transmission schedule of writing on ­Friday, rehearsing on Monday, filming on Tuesday and Wednesday, editing on Thursday and delivering on Friday.

“The beauty of the current news cycle is that the facts write most of the sketch for you,” Brigstocke says. “Reading newspapers and looking for the absurd has never been easier.”

Norris explains: “New satirical sketch writers are at the core of British comedy. The Pythons cut their TV teeth on The Frost Report, while Spitting Image launched Ian Hislop, Steve Coogan and Rory Bremner.

“Most of today’s great comedy writers started out with sketches on the Radio 4 satire show Week Ending — so you need a core of people who know what they’re doing.”

Ullman writes some of the material and advises her prosthetics whiz, Floris Schuller, Brigstocke says. “She comes out of make-up in character and spends the day as Gove or May,” he adds. “It’s not intense nonsense like [the method actor] Daniel Day-Lewis — it’s basically having Michael Gove making mischief on set all day.”

This is less surprising than it first seems. Ullman, who has an estimated net worth of £80m, was the first British woman to be offered her own sketch show on both UK and US tele­vision. When the BBC offered her a series, she chose to work with Lenny Henry and David Copperfield in the groundbreaking Three of a Kind — which avoided sexist and racist stereotypes in a way that still seems cutting-edge today. She is also the person who discovered The Simpsons, which began life as bumper skits on her US sketch show.

It feels as if it took her a little time to settle into the British style after her US sojourn, although she points out: “Our class system was embedded in me from an early age — and still prevails. Being born in England, as soon as someone opens their mouth, you know where they’re from, what they aspire to, where they went to school.”

Tracey Breaks the News is on the BBC iPlayer

Peter Osbourne: Tracey, Queen of Political Satire

It's often said that the age of political satire is dead.

That’s no longer true, thanks to Tracey Ullman’s exceptionally good show, which finished its latest run on BBC1 last Friday.

For my money, Tracey Breaks The News knocks Spitting Image and even Rory Bremner into a cocked hat.

She was especially devastating about Environment Secretary Michael Gove, who she portrayed in one episode as a duplicitous mischief-maker who promises to catch someone falling towards him during a ‘trust exercise’, but then pulls away.

How telling, then, that there has not been a whimper of protest from Gove’s allies at Ullman’s waspish portrayal.

By contrast, how pathetic that allies of Jeremy Corbyn are pitifully whingeing about her taking the mickey out of the Labour leader, and daring to complain about bias from the infamously Left-leaning BBC!



Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Tracey Ullman's Corbyn Sketch Attracts Antisemitic Slurs

  • A Tracey Ullman sketch about Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has attracted a fierce backlash
  • Broadcast on Friday night, supporters of the Labour leader have responded with racist claims
  • Jewish comic David Baddiel has been accused of writing the sketch, despite having no involvement in the show

A sketch about Jeremy Corbyn has gone viral, attracting an antisemitic backlash on social media.

Broadcast on Friday night in the first episode of topical comedy Tracey Breaks The News Series 2, the sketch (below) stars Ullman in character as the Labour Party leader.

Drawing on criticism of Corbyn's handling of a series of antisemitic scandals within his party, a vocal section of his supporters have taken against the sketch and accused Jewish comedian David Baddiel as having written it, in a "Zionist conspiracy" against the party.

British Comedy Guide has discovered that the author of the sketch was in fact Laurence Howarth, who has also penned a run of sketches for the new series mocking prominent Conservative backbench MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, and script-edits radio satire Dead Ringers.

The Labour leader has been faced with criticism since he was first elected to lead the left-wing political party at the end of Summer 2015. The most substantial of these relate to links he has forged and causes he has supported during his now 35-year career as a professional politician, including accusations of support for the IRA and its military activity during Northern Ireland's Troubles.

More recently, Corbyn's leadership has come under repeated fire in the media and from Jewish groups across Britain for its apparent toleration of antisemitism within the party. The sketch opens with a topical reference to the imminent Labour LIVE festival event, struggling with low ticket sales, before satirising the links and alleged less-tasteful opinions of the Labour leader.

It sees him confronted by a series of potentially embarrassing figures whilst in the company of ordinary members of the public and would-be Labour voters at an airport terminal.

Despite the programme also featuring biting sketches featuring new characters of Conservative politicians Michael Gove (pictured) and Jacob Rees-Mogg, plus the return of Prime Minister Theresa May, all of whom were heavily promoted as appearing in the new series, the Corbyn sketch has caused the programme and the BBC to come under heavy fire from Corbyn's supporters.

Amidst accusations of "BBC bias" and the sketch of being "propaganda masquerading as satire", antisemitic rumours have been spread as fact that Ullman is Jewish and that Jewish comedian David Baddiel, who recently appeared on Frankie Boyle's New World Order discussing antisemitism in the Labour Party, authored the sketch. Over the weekend, politicians including George Galloway have also been involved in spreading the claims.

Many of the tweets criticising the sketch and attacking Baddiel have been heavily laced with racist codes and terminology, posing it as a "Zionist conspiracy" against Mr Corbyn and his leadership of the Labour Party.

In fact, Ullman comes from a Roman-Catholic Polish background, whilst Baddiel, an outspoken atheist, has no association with Tracey Breaks The News whatsoever. He tweeted: "I've met Tracey Ullman once 20 years ago when she came on Fantasy Football."

Producer of the series, Caroline Norris, added: "I have no idea where [this idea] came from. He'd be on the credits if he'd written a sketch for the show."

Baddiel later added: "FFS. This is the literally the weirdest conspiracy theory I've ever seen. I've now seen it stated as fact that I wrote that sketch. Maybe I should ask for royalties. Or will that confirm the stereotype for the anti-semites?"

BBC Comedy's own Twitter account weighed in to point out they had shared the anti-Conservative sketches, and quipped: "We're equal opportunity piss-takers. There's also a debate on whether it's pronounced 'scon' or 'scone'. Here, we shamefully didn't fulfil our impartiality remit. It's scone."

Many other comics have also jumped in to defend David Baddiel and the sketch. Mitch Benn responded to one vocal Corbynite critic: "It's SATIRE, dear. Its remit is to take the rise out of politicians. If you're content to see the piss being ripped out of the Tories, you have to accept Our Jeremy Who Art In Islington copping for some shit occasionally. Can't have it all one way."

Others commenting in disgust at the antisemitic smears included David Schneider, Al Murray, Emma Kennedy, and a number of journalists.

Jewish comic actor Tracy Ann Oberman, who has appeared in previous episodes of the comedy, tweeted: "I know from all the DMs I get from very high profile tweeters that you abhor this creeping racism too. We are all torn by our desire to support Labour but repulsed by many of Corbyn's ardent supporters. But more of you that speak out against these tropes, it will help. For all."

All - including Ullman and Baddiel - are long-time, vocal Labour Party supporters.

Meanwhile, the sketch has proved popular with commentators on the right - who also regularly criticise the BBC as propagandist for its treatment of right-wing politicians and viewpoints.

The sketch stars Ullman as Corbyn, with Jason Forbes and Ben Ashenden as the two members of the public. Liam Hourican plays Gerry Adams, Steve Furst the Jew, and Chris Ryman plays the taxi driver. Here it is in full:

Tracey Breaks The News Series 2 continues with the second of three episodes on Friday night at 9:30pm on BBC One.

British Comedy Guide