Tracy-Ann Oberman

Posted: December 29, 2013 in Actor, Writer
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Arabella Weir passed me on to Tracy-Ann Oberman, who I met at the Hampstead Theatre.  ca987b_3dd22e6b93e55575fdff7d5989df3a4d.jpg_1024

Tracy Ann Oberman is trying to blag me a ticket for the play that she’s in.  The problem is the performance is too popular.

‘No returns?’ she asks the lady at the ticket counter? ‘What about if he sits in the lighting box?’

Both enquiries are met with a sympathetic but firm denial.  Nine years since she dropped a doorstop onto Dirty Den’s head, putting an end to the old philanderer’s antics permanently, Oberman is still hugely popular with the masses.  So much so that she still gets fan mail about Chrissie Watts, the character she played in Eastenders.

That role propelled her into the public consciousness, but she was a respected jobbing actress long before Chrissie came along.  After learning her trade at the Central School of Speech and Drama, she spent four years at the RSC before going on to appear opposite Kenneth Branagh at the National Theatre and generally working her butt off.  There’d been a ton of radio (around 600 plays), quite a bit of comedy with everyone from Lenny Henry to Simon Pegg and, she tells me, numerous voiceovers. You’ll be seeing quite a bit more of her on the telly in the coming months, firstly as Auntie Val in ‘Friday Night Dinner’ and latterly in Sky’s spring drama ‘Give Out Girls’.  Where does she get her strong work ethic from?

‘I come from a family where a lot of people died very young so I think I’ve always had this feeling of needing to do something before you go.  Maybe when you’re aware of mortality when you’re very young, you realise that you don’t know how long you’ve got. When people are dropping dead, the sense of immortality that children have goes very quickly.’

Oberman’s grandmother fled from the Russian pogroms in 1907.  Two million Jews fled Russia between 1880 and 1914 as anti Jewish rioting and killing was enflamed by the anti-semitic policies of successive Russian leaders.  After arriving in England aged 15 without her family, Oberman’s grandmother slept on the floor of a factory for two years.

‘We were bought up with this woman who could’t even speak English but would go on in Yiddish Russian ‘We’ve got to keep the bags packed in case the Cossacks come.’  My Dad’s family also lost a lot of people in Auschwitz and Dachau.’  It is this, she tells me, that propels her to make the most of her time.

Her father was initially terrified of the thought of her being an actress, telling her he thought she would end up a lonely old woman who lived with a cat, struggling to pay the rent on a bedsit.  ‘My family weren’t from the entertainment industry and they didn’t understand it at all.  They thought that real people didn’t get to do that, that you had to be the son or daughter of someone.’

Oberman has just finished a play at the Hampstead Theatre called ‘Godchild’ which held up a looking glass to an alternative future for her personally.  Her character Lou doesn’t end up with a cat in a bedsit but is someone who, as Oberman puts it ‘is a 40 year old in an arrested state of development.  She isn’t married, has never settled, can’t commit to anything and doesn’t really know who she is.  She’s had same job for 25 years, is hanging out with 19 year olds and is in complete denial that her life is just an empty meaningless void of sex and drugs.’  As a happily married woman with a daughter and a fulfilling career, does Oberman really think her life could have turned out that way?

‘I just know a lot of women like the character Lou that I played.  And a lot of men!  At a certain point in my life, maybe in my mid 30s, I might have ended up like that.  It’s the flip side of where I am in my life which is happy, secure, family, sense of belonging.  This character has none of that and I can easily see how that could have happened to me because it’s happened to a lot of my friends.   You know what I mean?  You get to 40 and you think, where did the years go, I still feel like I’m 20?’

Oberman’s own life couldn’t be more different.  Happily married to music producer Rob Cowan since 2004 and a Mum to seven year old Anoushka, her career is not only successful career but varied.  Many actors struggle to succeed in other genres after leaving a high profile soap; consider the number of popular characters that have returned to Eastenders and the security of a regular pay cheque.

Oberman went a different way.  She’s appeared regularly in theatre and kept her hand in with the television work, appearing in many popular shows including Doctor Who and Waterloo Road.  More interestingly, she’s increasingly turned to writing, adapting (with Diane Samuels) Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ for radio and imagining the personal conversations of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford for the Radio 4 play ‘Bette and Joan and Baby Jane’.   The success of this resulted in ‘Rock and Doris and Elizabeth’, this time using the characters of Hudson, Day and Taylor respectively.  There’ll be another instalment as Radio 4 have just commissioned the final part of the trilogy.

Rumours abound that Chrissie Watts will be resurrected though.  18 million people watched Chrissie murder Den, propelling Oberman into a world of paparazzi and successive TV magazine covers. What was it like being that famous?    Oberman-as-Chrissie-Watts-007

‘It was odd, it was like I’d never worked before.  I was well known in the industry but the public thought of me as the girl who vaguely looks like Alex Kingston.  Literally two minutes after my first episode had aired a car screeched to a halt as I was leaving the house.  A girl got out and took a picture on her phone and said ‘Allo Chrissie’ and I remember thinking that life would never be the same again.  I got stopped all the time but it was very nice.  People understood the difference between Chrissie and Tracy and the public wanted to talk about the character.  She was confusing for them – was she a victim or was she a villain?’

She tells me that it’s only now that she can take the tube without being recognised.  Anonymity has helped open some doors too, allowing her to go up for parts in comedies that her famous face formerly excluded her from.  Recently this has included a delightful turn as the love interest of Matt Berry in Channel Four’s hugely successful ‘Toast of London’. While she won’t be drawn on whether Chrissie’s return is on the cards, would she want to step back into the glare of the spotlight if the call came?

‘She was a character I was proud of because soap is a very interesting medium, it’s a heightened reality. At the same time I’ve been quite maverick in my career, I’ve never focused on one area.  Never having been pigeonholed has meant that I’ve never been out of work.  That means I will never rise to the top of anyones list: I don’t think that I’m the first  actor to go to for drama for example.  I span the theatre camp, I span the comedy camp and I think that’s a strength.  I’ve been lucky because every day there’s been someone different.’

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