Thursday 24 May 2018

The Tracey Ullman Show review: 'When Ullman is good she’s really exceptional'

Pat Stacey reviews The Tracey Ullman Show (BBC1) and The Golden Globes (RTE2) and the BBC News Channel

Tracey Ullman's Show will be her first UK project in 30 years
Tracey Ullman's Show will be her first UK project in 30 years

Pat Stacey

Long before there was Tina Fey, Amy Schumer, Amy Poehler or Amy Anybody Else, there was Tracey Ullman. “Eh . . . Tracey who?” some of you might be thinking.

Not a surprise, that. The world looked a whole lot different — no internet, no social media, no YouTube — where nobodies can become somebodies practically overnight — when Ullman, an actress, singer and comedy performer (and wearing all those hats effortlessly well), disappeared off the radar 30 years ago.

Well, not disappeared exactly. She just left Britain to make a go of it in America. Fine at the time for musicians, singers and actors, but practically unheard of if you were a woman working in comedy.

Ullman had become a star in Britain in two sketch shows, Three of a Kind, alongside Lenny Henry and David Copperfield (not the US magician, incidentally, a different fella), and A Kick Up the Eighties, where her fellow performers included Rik Mayall and Miriam Margoyles, and also a sitcom called Girls on Top, with French and Saunders and Ruby Wax.

She became an even bigger star across the Atlantic. She didn’t so much crack America as knock it back on its heels. Her Fox network sketch show — which introduced The Simpsons to the public in a series of brief and fairly crudely-drawn animations — was one of the highest-rated things on US television and won a clutch of awards. So did her later, more adult-themed shows for HBO.

And now she’s returned to her original home, the BBC, for a fresh sketch show called simply Tracey Ullman’s Show. I say fresh, but if you were to replace a few of the comedic targets, it could conceivably have been made more or less the same way at any time in the 1980s.

The title sequence is a musical number and an additional song and dance routine — a surprisingly sharp lambasting of the Tories for shutting public libraries — closed the show.

The old ways aren’t always necessarily the best (just look at the atrocious Citizen Khan and a certain other sitcom about a mammy), but there’s much to enjoy here.

Not all of it worked; sketch shows are by their nature hit and miss. I could probably have done with a little less of Ullman as an Angela Merkel who considers herself a smouldering sex bomb. It did go on a bit. But when Ullman is good she’s really exceptional.

She’s always been an astounding mimic. She captured the voice and, with the help of some superb make-up, the looks of Judi Dench (“Actually, it’s Dame Judi”) with uncanny accuracy.

In Ullman’s hands she’s depicted as an octogenarian delinquent who uses her national treasure status to get away with all sorts of anti-social behaviour.

She shoplifts from a mini-market and, when co-star Rupert Grint (the real one) is not looking, destroys his tablet, before slipping away to burn down his trailer.

Ullman’s impression of Maggie Smith, pitching a showreel for parts in science fiction franchises, is also spot-on.

There are some good original characters too, like former drug mule Karen, who returns to England after a 30-year stretch in a foreign prison for smuggling cocaine in pot noodles, and MP Sally Preston, who proclaims her feminist credentials by going topless (the breasts are prosthetic, by the way).

I initially wondered why such a high-profile show had been given a 10.45pm timeslot (11.15pm if you’re stuck with BBC1 NI). It’s down to the content, which features a smattering of four-letter words, some quite risque jokes and, of course, Sally Preston’s prosthetic breasts.

Ullman can call on top talent and there’s a long and strong list of writers here, including Arthur Mathews. It’s good to have her back.

The Golden Globes are always a hoot when Ricky Gervais is on gloriously non-PC hosting duties. This year’s ceremony, however, were also something of a joke.

Can anyone honestly say Lady Gaga’s hammy turn in American Horror Story: Hotel outshone Kirsten Dunst’s mesmerising performance in Fargo? And speaking of Fargo, did it really deserve to lose out to Wolf Hall in the miniseries category? As much as I enjoyed Wolf Hall, it was a literary adaptation, whereas Fargo was a brilliant piece of original work that redefined the limits of what TV drama can do.

Yesterday was a desperately sad day for many of us, for an obvious reason: the shattering death of David Bowie.

I can’t abide Sky News anyway (I’d rather pull my toenails out with pliers than watch the obnoxious Kate Burley), but the BBC News Channel really was the only place to watch the memory and legacy of a cultural and musical giant being honoured. It did a wonderful job.

It helps that the Beeb has access to all sorts of wonderful archive material other channels don’t and I imagine we’ll be seeing a lot of it in the coming days.

Truly, there is a Starman waiting in the sky today. RIP, you genius.


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