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Comedian Tracey Ullman reveals her family kept her father’s death a secret

Comedian Tracey Ullman reveals her family kept her father’s death when she was six a secret – telling her: ‘He’s on holiday’


Tracey Ullman has revealed how her family tried to keep her father’s death a secret from her.

The comedian was only six when her dad Antony died shortly after he began reading his daughter a bedtime story at the family home in Slough, Berkshire.

Speaking on today’s Desert Island Discs, she says: ‘He had had an operation and then he came home, and he was reading me a story and he became unwell and then an ambulance came.

‘I think I knew that he’d passed away but my family dealt with it in a way then which you just wouldn’t deal with a child with grief now. They said for a while – until they’d settled matters and things – ‘Oh, he’s on holiday’ and I didn’t go to the funeral and I think you would now.’

Tracey Ullman has revealed how her family tried to keep her father’s death a secret from her

‘My sketches wouldn’t all survive today’

During a career spanning five decades, Tracey Ullman’s comic characters have ranged from a Jamaican care giver to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, taking in Indian pharmacist Padma Perkesh.

But she has admitted that today’s political correctness means she would no longer feel comfortable recreating some of her most acclaimed skits.

The comedian as pharmacist Padma Perkesh

The comedian as pharmacist Padma Perkesh

Asked by Desert Island Discs presenter Lauren Laverne if she would now play so many parts where the age, sexuality and ethnicity was different to hers, she replied: ‘No probably not. It wouldn’t be the right sort of atmosphere for it, no. I think the late 1980s, it was just what you could do. It was what you were doing then. It would be different now.’

However, the star has no misgivings about her previous work. ‘No, I don’t regret anything and I don’t apologise for anything really. It’s pointless, you know – onward.’

The 61-year-old star says that because her family, including her mother Doreen, refused to talk about what had happened, she quickly fell into a new routine even though it meant they had to move home and she was pulled out of private school. 

‘Then it was very much you go to a new school, you just get a new uniform, you get a new doll, and you carry on,’ she recalls. ‘Nobody talked about it.’

Ms Ullman, the first British woman to be offered her own TV sketch show in both the UK and the US, does not blame her family because ‘grief was dealt with differently then’.

She says: ‘Of course I talked to my mother about it eventually. It was very difficult for her. She was in her thirties, very young.

‘As you get older, you realise how really hard it was for her.’

Doreen died aged 85 in a fire at her retirement flat in 2015.

Antony Ullman was a Polish-born lawyer who served with the Polish army before being evacuated from Dunkirk and setting up a business. 

He would tell customers in his shop: ‘Tracey is going to be a star.’

Ms Ullman recalls that after her father’s death: ‘Our financial fortunes came and went. [My mother] would wash up in pubs and work in hospitals … It was bloomin’ hard.

‘She used to bring back food from this food lab [where she worked]. 

‘She brought back this corned beef and we were all eating it, it was like fritters and sandwiches for a whole weekend. 

‘She looked at the label on a Monday and she said it says ‘unfit for human consumption’. [We said] ‘Mum, you could have killed us’.’

The comedian was only six when her dad Antony died shortly after he began reading his daughter a bedtime story at the family home in Slough, Berkshire

The comedian was only six when her dad Antony died shortly after he began reading his daughter a bedtime story at the family home in Slough, Berkshire 

The comedian moved back to London after the death of her husband of 30 years, Allan McKeown, in 2013.

The mother-of-two said: ‘There was more dignity to being a widow in London… Just walking around and talking to people. You don’t do that in LA. You are up a hill in your car all the time. The connection with people was crucial at that time… It’s very lonely in Los Angeles.’

  • Desert Island Discs is on BBC Radio 4 today at 11am and will be repeated on Friday at 9am.

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