The women bringing new life to TV comedy

Comedy used to be run by middle-aged men making Goons references. But new series Tracey Ullman's Show and Crashed are a brilliant reminder that women are increasingly claiming territory.

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As Tracey Ullman recently noted in an interview, when she was first on our screens (in the 1980s, junior readers) BBC comedy was run by middle-aged men who talked about the Goons a lot (I’ll leave you to google that). But now, thirty years after she decamped to the US, where she won seven Emmys, she’s back – and there are women everywhere. Well, maybe not everywhere. Still, at least the BBC’s controller of comedy, Myfanwy Moore, is a woman. Does this make Ullman happy? You bet it does, especially if Ms Moore is going to allow her to do whatever the hell she likes.

But has she been allowed to do whatever the hell she likes? It does look that way. Her new series, Tracey Ullman’s Show (Mondays, 10.45pm), in which she mostly impersonates famous people, is a sketch show in the tradition of The Two Ronnies and Little Britain. It even comes with a song-and-dance number in which, in the first episode, our Tracey gets to put on her tap shoes (before she became the star of A Kick Up the Eighties and Three of a Kind, she trained as a hoofer). Yet the truth is that, dusty as the format appears, and childish as most of her gags are, I couldn’t help myself: within seconds, I was sniggering like an overgrown schoolgirl. What next? Any day now, I’ll find myself enjoying Mrs Brown’s Boys.

A lot of current comedy is so try-hard, suicidally desperate to be sophisticated. ­Ullman, by contrast, is content to be a prize mickey-taker, and an ace impressionist. So here is her Angela Merkel, convinced that every pathetic male leader has the major hots for her, and that the Queen only pretends not to understand German; and here, too, is her Judi Dench, a national treasure who shoplifts on the sly and, on set, sneaks off to set fire to Rupert Grint’s trailer.

I know; this sounds so creaky. And yet it works. Even funnier – honestly – was her beauty therapist who, having accidentally set fire to the room with a jasmine candle, doggedly refused to disturb the client to whom she was giving a massage.

“It’s natural to cough,” she said, as the place filled with smoke. “You’re just letting the toxins out.”

Another funny woman is Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose new six-part series is on Channel 4. Waller-Bridge, an actor and playwright previously best known to me, and probably to you, too, as the incompetent young barrister in the second series of Broadchurch, has written and stars in Crashing (Mondays, 10pm), which is basically This Life for the 21st century: that is to say, it’s about a bunch of twentysomething professionals who live together, and sometimes have sex together. However, quite a lot has changed since Anna, Miles et al inhabited their stuccoed house somewhere quite close to the river. People smoke a lot less, for one thing. For another, rents in London are now unaffordable, even if there are half a dozen of you to share the monthly bill, at least one of whom is willing to sleep beneath the sink.

So, in Crashing, the characters are the guardians of a disused hospital. I’m not sure I buy the idea that so much of its equipment still seems to be lying around but, hey, needs must if your script is to have lines such as: “The whole point of living in a disused hospital is to get a girl on a slab” (said by someone hoping to get laid at a party).

Lulu, Waller-Bridge’s character, has pitched up in search of her old friend Anthony (Damien Molony), having done a bit of travelling, “mostly in the Midlands”. He lives there with, among others, his super-anal PR girlfriend, Kate (Louise Ford), and a sex-crazed estate agent, Sam (Jonathan Bailey). Flirty Lulu has a tendency to feyness that can be as annoying as it is amusing. Her ukulele-playing is already beginning to get on my nerves. But any icky ill-effects this induces in the viewer are all but cancelled out by the writing elsewhere, which is sharp and quite dirty, and also by Waller-Bridge’s performance, which is finely judged: some other, murkier stuff is evidently going on beneath the mannered surface. All in all, I like it – and it’s beyond brilliant to see a girl owning this kind of territory. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 14 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie