They South Bank Show

That famous coiffure may have lost a little of its lustre, but Melvyn Bragg showed no signs of wearying as he launched a new series of TV’s longest running arts strand with a profile of Tracy Ullman (episode 773, if you’re counting).

Dressed in a tweed jacket and polo neck, Bragg still looks more like a Russell Group academic than a TV host, while his thoughtful, engaged, gently probing interview style feels like a throwback to a less shouty, more civilised age.

Ullman’s story is one of triumph tinged with tragedy. When she was just six, her father died of a heart attack while reading her a bedtime story. ‘Our sadness made me want to make people happy,’ she said. ‘I would do shows in my mother’s bedroom, on the windowsill. I wanted to cheer everyone up.’

When a BBC producer spotted her comic talents, she told them she wasn’t interested in wearing a bikini and having her bum pinched, which seemed to be the lot of women in TV comedy at the time. Doing it her own way earned her a Bafta and even a second career as a pop star, but at the height of her UK fame she suddenly upped sticks and disappeared to America, where she became an even bigger star. (How big? One of the people popping up here to pay tribute, casual as you like, was Meryl Streep.)

On Christmas Eve 2013, Ullman lost her husband, Alan McKeown, to cancer, and a year or so later returned to the UK to make a new series for the BBC. On the set of her current show, Tracy Breaks the News, she showed Bragg the suitcase of wigs she uses transform herself into the likes of Angela Merkel and Judi Dench. She keeps the suitcase under her bed.

If you wanted to play ‘sofa psychologist’, she reflected, you could say her response to grief is still to dress up, climb onto that windowsill and try to make people happy. It’s the sort of insight you just don’t get on the Graham Norton show.

TV extra:


Saluting Dad’s Army

Alexander Armstrong kicked off this four-part 50thbirthday tribute with the story of how a wartime sitcom launched into a summer graveyard slot, which critics were sniffy about and BBC bosses were convinced would bomb, went on to become ‘British television comedy’s finest (half) hour’. There were plenty of good stories (including Beeb execs kyboshing a grim early title sequence showing German bombers strafing fleeing refugees), but the absence of all the main players was sobering.


Hounslow Diaries

This sparky new sitcom about three Muslim teenagers (Mandeep Dhillon, Robyn Cara and writer Ambreen Razia) trying to live their best lives in West London shows just how much BBC comedy has changed in the half-century since Dad’s Army. Instead of jokes about the Germans, there are gags about hiding smartphones in the Quran, while on the soundtrack front Bud Flanagan has given way to the likes of South London rapper Amplify Dot. I wonder if in 50 years’ time it will look as Walmington-on-Sea?

Published in Waitrose Weekend, May 31, 2018

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