Tracey Ullman is known as the woman of a thousand characters, but there’s a autobiographical thread running through her latest effort, “Tracey Ullman’s Show,” which premieres Friday on HBO.
The opening credit sequence tells the story: Ullman dances around a bedroom in pajamas, singing an 80s-esque pop tune into a hairbrush microphone with an 8-year-old doppelganger. That’s meant to be a tribute to her mother, Doreen, who died at age 85 in March 2015. Ullman credits her career as an actress and master of impersonation to the “shows” she used to put on as a child for her mother.
“The ‘Tracey Ullman Show’ really started in her bedroom,” Ullman tells Variety. “I used to dance on her windowsill. It’s just what I’ve always done.”
Ullman has spent much of the past few years in England, after three decades in the U.S. Her husband of 30 years, producer Allan McKeown, died in late 2013. After enduring the losses of her husband and her mother, Ullman wanted to be closer to her daughter, Mabel, who works for a London-based medical charity. She was surprised when she got a call from the BBC offering her the chance to do a new sketch comedy series. The series ultimately became a co-production with HBO. The BBC has already ordered a second batch of episodes that Ullman just finished shooting.
“I didn’t think I had a profile here at all any more,” Ullman says. She was surprised at what she found in her return to the BBC. It was much like the place she worked in the 1980s before moving to America to be part of the Fox broadcast network’s 1987 launch slate with “The Tracey Ullman Show” (which famously incubated “The Simpsons” as a series of shorts).
“When I’d been there 30 years ago, it was five gentlemen in bow ties who’d fought in the war,” she says. “This time there were women there” — the Beeb’s director of content Charlotte Moore and Caroline Norris, the producer she teamed with for the show.
Ullman developed her typical array of characters — some well-known figures, some archetypes that allow her to poke fun at social trends and fads. Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, German chancellor Angela Merkel and Camilla Parker Bowles are among the boldface names she tackles.
“It’s what I always do. Every few years I look around me and assess society and what’s going on,” she says. “I’m getting older so the characters I impersonate are older.”
Producing the show in England forced Ullman to assemble a new team of writers and below-the-line artisans after having worked with largely the same core group of people for years in the U.S. She brought the structure of having a writer’s room to the process, which is still not the norm for most Brit-coms. And she was surprised to find how truly global a business television has become. A number of her writers are alums of “Veep,” the HBO comedy created by British filmmaker Armando Iannucci.
“They all had a very worldly take when we all got together,” she says. The experience made her realize that she didn’t need to be tethered to Los Angeles to make television. “The lovely thing is you can write and produce shows from anywhere and sell them around the world.”
“Tracey Ullman’s Show” is the first project that Ullman has produced since McKeown’s passing, and there was no question she feels the pain of his absence. The show hails from the Allan McKeown Presents banner that Ullman intends to keep active with projects that she’s working on with other writers and producers, addition to her own ventures. As always, Ullman made sure she retained the lion’s share of equity in “Tracey Ullman’s Show,” which meant bringing deficit financing to the table and controlling international distribution rights.
“That’s how my husband taught me to do it,” she said. “It’s very empowering and it’s the way I like to work. I think my husband would be proud of me.” Ullman credited Norris with filling the essential role of producer and task-master on the set that McKeown had always ably handled.
Ullman has been gratified by the strong reception to “Ullman’s Show.” She’s enjoying the ability to bounce around between London, New York and Los Angeles now that her two children are grown. Her son, Johnny, has gone into the family business, working as a writers’ assistant for “The Late Late Show with James Corden.”
“I’m doing pretty good,” she said of adjusting to this new chapter of her life. “I kind of feel free. I’m buzzing around, feeling excited, and I love not being tied down to any particular place right now but I can still do what I love to do. I feel like (sketch comedy) is something that I will always do. I’ll be doing it when I’m 80.”