Written by Rae Earl

Arts

The return of a comedy pioneer

After almost three decades in the US, Tracey Ullman is making a comedy series for the BBC. Excited? You bloody should be, says Rae Earl.

Tracey Ullman

Photo: Showtime.

God, the 1970s were bad for women on TV. When the history of light entertainment is finally studied in schools, children will look at the Saturday night schedules and ask in horror: “What was going on?”

Comedy, in particular, was in a Dark Age. There are notable exceptions; but the small screen was full of things that just weren’t that funny. Like Little and Large, which had 20 million viewers, and a dance troupe called Foxy Ladies. Remember anything else about them? Not really. What were they putting in our Angel Delight? Rohypnol?

Prior to 1980, women on television mainly read the news, ran about in leotards on Top of the Pops, or modelled mahogany dining room suites on Sale of the Century. There were some funny women – like Mollie Sugden, Joan Simms, Hylda Baker and Peggy Mount – but they were older. Women were more to laugh at, rather than laugh with. The film On the Buses is entirely about how women can’t drive large vehicles because they are frightened of spiders or need to wee. That was the funny standard. The comedy reflected the reality. It was about unrealised dreams and restricted opportunities. Think of the beautiful and brilliant Yootha Joyce in George & Mildred – glamorous, full of repressed suburban desire and married to a pillock. It was basically a documentary of the ’70s.

I’m breaking my cardinal rule and intellectualising comedy, but the point is, things were grim. But then it all started to change. And Tracey Ullman was a massive part of that change. In A Kick Up the Eighties and Three of a Kind she was totally a comic equal with her male co‐stars. She did characters, she did satire, she LED sketches. She wasn’t just a foil for the boys. She was also YOUNG and looked a bit like your older sister getting ready for a big night out. Finally here was someone I could relate to – she was funny but on her own terms and more than capable of holding her own.

“You have to remember that at this time Benny Hill was still chasing naked women round parks and slapping their backsides.”

I cannot stress enough what a revelation this was after years of end‐of‐the‐pier mother‐in‐law gags. The world had shifted. Girls could be funny AND sexy – and you didn’t give a crap what people thought about it.

Then she started making records too.

But Tracey Ullman’s pop career wasn’t based around novelty songs. She could have easily gone down the Shaddapa Your Face / Loadsamoney route, and we would have completely forgiven her. Instead she made great pop songs that echoed the big girl band sound of the sixties: Breakaway, Sunglasses, and her cover of Kirsty McColl’s They Don’t Know – which is wondrous. Even though Kirsty herself did the high pitched ‘baby!’ towards the end of the song, Tracey created a pop classic. And the fact that Sir Paul McCartney does a cameo in the video just further proves the point that this woman just made everything seem possible. You’ve got a Beatle pretending to be your boyfriend for a laugh? That WINS.

With legends Ruby Wax and French and Saunders, Tracey also made the first alternative situation comedy I can remember, with women in ALL the lead roles: Girls on Top. You have to remember that at this time Benny Hill was still chasing naked women round parks and slapping their backsides. Plus – and I’ve just checked – Little and Large were STILL on BBC1 in peak time. With the Foxy Ladies. Wearing nothing. We’ve still got a long way to go to get comedic equality as women, but Tracey was one of the first people battling the dinosaurs and paving the way for the new generation of female comic superstars.

But then she left to make it big in America.

How many careers have taken that path only to return a few years later with their tail between their legs? Even ABBA couldn’t quite crack it. ABBA! At the time it seemed like a very big, brave step. And in that very British way of cutting people down when we think they’ve got too big for their boots, a lot of people suggested Tracey had become a little arrogant, beyond herself. They were proved completely wrong when she slaughtered America – made the entire nation fall in love with her, and won multiple Emmy awards for both her own show and for her appearances in programs like Ally McBeal. Oh, and then there’s the little matter of launching a cartoon based on a dysfunctional American family. Tracey Ullman – Patron Saint of The Simpsons – the world’s favourite television show of the past 25 years. When Tracey got her BAFTA lifetime achievement award in 2009, it was richly deserved.

Now, after nearly three decades, she’s coming home and we need her more than ever. Thirty years after she hit the big time, there are still not enough women on television being funny and silly. It’s going to be exciting to see a 55‐year‐old Tracey Ullman reinvent herself yet again. One of my generation’s comedic pioneers is back. She shook things up last time and I’m hoping she’ll be doing much the same again.

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Written by Rae Earl

Rae Earl is the writer of 'My Mad Fat Diary' and the 'OMG!' Hattie Moore series. She has never, despite three decades of trying, taught a cat to show jump. @RaeEarl