❉ Tracy-Ann Oberman on her iconic roles, comedy CV, cult faves, ‘Bette & Joan & Baby Jane’ and being a rebellious geek.
Whether you know her best as Chrissie Watts, Auntie Val, Yvonne Hartman or Mrs Purchase, the brilliant Tracy-Ann Oberman needs no introduction.
Tracy-Ann joined We Are Cult for a chinwag about her iconic roles, working in comedy, her ‘Hollywood lives’ trilogy of plays, her favourite books, films, movies and records, and much more besides…
What were you like at school?
I was a rebellious geek. Geek as in all I did was read and most of it was Roman History like Suetonius or sci-fi like Asimov. Rebellious in that I couldn’t stand petty rules and regulations and went out of my way to ‘stick it to the man’ at every possible moment.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I had three cherished ambitions. An Archaeologist ( long story – saw ‘The Omen’ and loved the whole archaeology vibe at the opening). A Nazi hunter with Simon Wiesenthal (long story – saw ‘The Boys From Brazil’ and was fired up to fight injustice) and quietly to myself had a fantasy of being an actor.
What advice would you give to your teenage self?
Find a bottle of hair conditioner. Oh and a size 8 body and long legs isn’t the key to happiness . Beauty is projected from the inside out and ‘success’ isn’t the key to fixing a lack of self-esteem.
What are your best and worst qualities?
Best is loyalty and honesty.
Worst is I have no patience for anything faux or inauthentic.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
I had a Saturday job at Next on our local high street. Friend’s mothers used to leave piles of clothes in the dressing room and say: “Be a good girl Tracy, hang those up for us”.
Who were your pop culture heroes growing up?
Debbie Harry and Blondie. Boy George and Culture Club. Alison Moyet. Carole King (mum played ‘Tapestry’ on a loop) and early Adam Ant.
What do you consider to be the single greatest piece of television ever?
‘Threads’. Scarred my whole generation.
Monty Python: Is it funny?
Yes. Oh God Yes
What was the last film that you watched?
‘Arrival’. Last night.
What film could you watch every day?
The original ‘Producers’ with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. And Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’.
What’s your favourite film soundtrack?
‘The Wicker Man’ and ‘Midnight Express’. Those just popped into my head so I’m going with them.
Which four actors would you like to see in a film together and which genre?
Blimey that’s tough… living or dead? Nope can’t answer that. Too wide a brief. I’m overthinking it.
Which film, book or album last disappointed you the most?
Which album would you recommend and lend to a friend?
Rubber Soul (saw the excellent Ron Howard ‘Beatles: Eight Days a Week’ and it reminded me to dig out the vinyl from my Dad’s collection and play it again on a Pioneer turntable). Seminal.
Which record wouldn’t you let out of your sight?
Nick Drake: ‘Five Leaves Left’.
Which book would you save if your house was on fire?
I would save my original hard back signed copy of ‘Random Acts of Senseless Violence’ by the visionary Jack Womack. He’s become a great friend via Twitter.
I’m working on an audio adaptation of it at mo.
What are you reading at present?:
Just finished Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Heart Goes Last’.
I always admire her voice, audacity and dystopian vision.
What’s your definition of what makes something cult?
It’s timeless. It’s uncategorisable and everyone you love and admire loves it. It’s probably got no mass appeal!
You recently appeared in Toast of London, which We Are Cult recently voted one of the best comedy series of the new millennium; and you’ve also appeared in Big Train and Friday Night Dinner. Would you like to do more comedy?
I love ‘Toast’ and ‘Friday Night Dinner’. I’m very proud to have been in every series of these shows. Channel 4 comedy at its best. Mrs Purchase is a fine postmodern feminist comic creation by Matt and Arthur and Aunty Val makes me squeal. I originally went in for one episode in series 1 but the inestimable Robert Popper kept her on and on.
But I’ve always had a hand in comedy. Whilst starting out at the RSC and continuing in a classical theatre vein, I ended up on a parallel course in the comedy world via many BBC Radio 4 comedy sketch shows and comedy series most of which seem to be repeated on Radio 4 Extra.
I’ve always had a big comedy CV from ‘Big Train’ onward working with my friend Paul Kaye on sketch ideas back in the day, Lenny Henry on his sketch show, working with Sanjeev Bhaskar and Anil Gupta on ‘The Way It Is’ for BBC Radio 4 and Sean Locke and a host of other comedian-actors . I wrote a comedy pilot with Alex Lowe Kim Wall and Chris Pavlo which won a BBC 2 award and was made into a pilot.
Comedy has always been a passion.
Most viewers know you as Chrissie Watts from EastEnders; what was it like being part of a TV institution?
Murdering soap’s biggest Icon Dirty Den and then burying him under the Queen Vic was a real coup. I’d originally gone in as his adoring hairdresser wife and through a bizarre turn of events ended up becoming a complex, almost film noir-ish female villain/victim .
You made a great impression as Torchwood diva Yvonne Hartman in Doctor Who, and have returned to the role in the Torchwood audio dramas. What do you love about the character?
When Russell T Davies asked me to play Yvonne Hartman I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d always been a Whovian as a kid and was very nervous when the reboot happened. I didn’t want my childhood memories sullied. But Oh. My. Goodness. What a huge achievement the whole thing was. Russell told me that Yvonne was like the girl who had gone into the BBC as a tea girl/PA and through sheer charm, cunning, intelligence and ruthlessness worked her way up to becoming the Director General. I loved that note and I loved the two scripts that he penned for Army of Ghosts and Doomsday.
We always joked that Yvonne should have lived on in a parallel universe as she was such a great character – strong, complex, ruthless but hilarious with a touch of camp wit behind the frightening Nationalistic conviction.
I’ve been extremely honoured that Big Finish brought her back to life for a series of quite brilliant productions (penned by amongst others the wonderful Joe Lidster.)
This last trilogy, ‘Torchwood: Before The Fall’ (out in January) is outstanding.
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were like Gods on Olympus. Riches and power beyond imagining. Until they got to 45. And then the fickle industry no longer loved its screen sirens.
What’s the best bit of advice anyone has given you?
Play the long game.
You’re a big fan of Bette Davis, and in 2004 you wrote and appeared in ‘Bette and Joan and Baby Jane’ with Catherine Tate for Radio 4. Can you tell us a little about that?
I’ve recorded over 600 radio plays and sketch shows over the years. I love the medium. So it was only a matter of time before I ended up writing something. I was appearing in a play and a comedy producer I’d worked with many times as a performer, called Liz Anstee, came to see it and afterwards asked me to pitch a radio play idea to the BBC. I’ve always been fascinated with the Golden Age of Hollywood and the human tales that emerge. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were like Gods on Olympus. Riches and power beyond imagining. Until they got to 45. And then the fickle industry no longer loved its screen sirens. These two women who had a career-long feud, ended up having to work together to create work for themselves in ‘Whatever Happened To Baby Jane’. My play looks beyond the Grand Guignol at the reasons that they did hate each other, how they nearly killed each other whilst filming it and what a lesson to anyone eaten up with jealousy of a sister or close colleague.
That first play with the great Catherine Tate did really well and I ended up writing a trilogy of Hollywood tales. One about Hollywood sweethearts Rock Hudson and Doris Day and the moment when Rock’s AIDS diagnosis hit the headlines and changed everything for the perception of the disease and of Hollywood hunks in general.
My final play went out last year and it’s the one I loved writing. It’s called ‘Mrs Robinson , I Presume?’; about the courage it took Mike Nichols to make ‘The Graduate’ in the way he wanted. He smashed through a system that wanted capped-tooth golden WASP actors on screen and he gave them Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft. And won seven Oscar nominations in the process. It was the film he was told he could never make. Kevin Bishop, John Simm, Paul Kaye , Steve Furst and Terry Mynot did me proud on that one. I played Anne Bancroft. What a woman.
Do you think it’s true that you should never meet your heroes?
Not always. It depends what you idolise about them.
What are your three favourite cities?
London. New York. Barcelona.
What element of your work gives you the most personal satisfaction?
Working in an ensemble to create a living believable world with credible characters ( on either screen or stage).
You’re appearing in Tracey Ullman’s Christmas special; what was it like working with such a great comic actress?
Tracey Ullman has been a personal hero of mine since ‘Three of a Kind’. She’s even more amazing in the flesh (so yes meet your heroes see Q24!) Intelligent, kind, talented, thoughtful, political, real, supportive of other women. This BBC series is even better than the first. So well-observed and laser characterisation and impressions. She’s one of the UK’s finest in my opinion.
Do you have any upcoming projects? How can our readers discover more about you and you work?
I’m about to open at The Vaudeville Theatre (West End) in ‘Stepping Out’ with a bunch of my close friends. It’s a play about a bunch of women and one man learning to tap dance. Directed by Maria Friedman. It’s a hoot.
I’ve got a play to write for Radio 4 and a few other projects on the go. I’ll keep you posted.
❉ ‘Torchwood One – Before The Fall’, written by Joseph Lidster, Jenny T Colgan and Matt Fitton, is available from Big Finish in January and is currently at pre-release prices of £15 on Download and £20 for a CD version (which unlocks instant digital access).
❉ ‘Stepping Out’ opens at the Vaudeville Theatre in March 2017 in London’s West End, following a run at the Theatre Royal Bath, the Richmond Theatre and the Cambridge Arts Theatre. Amanda Holden stars in the production alongside Angela Griffin, Tracy-Ann Oberman and Tamzin Outhwaite.
❉ ‘Tracey Ullman’s Show’ is broadcast on BBC One, Christmas Day 2016, 11:00pm