TV

Tracy-Ann Oberman: 'I'd like to go back and put an arm around myself'

She was a frizzy-haired teen waiting for a miracle serum, until sixth form college changed her life

Tracy-Ann Oberman

Tracy-Ann Oberman. Image: Joseph Sinclaire

Tracy-Ann Oberman is an English actor and playwright. She was born in 1966 in North London. After initially going to Leeds University to study classics, she moved to Manchester University after a year to do a drama course. Upon graduating, she was accepted into the Central School of Speech and Drama to train as an actor.

After joining the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1993, Oberman has gone on to have a prolific career, with roles on the stage and TV. She is probably most famous for playing Den Watts’ wife and eventual murderer Chrissie Watts in EastEnders in 2004/2005, as well as Auntie Val in Friday Night Dinner between 2012 and 2015. She has also starred in a host of other small-screen shows, including Doctor Who, Casualty, The Bill, New Tricks and After Life. Her theatre resume includes Waiting For Lefty, McQueen, On the Rocks and, most recently, Noises Off. From 27 February, she stars as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice 1936 – Shakespeare’s play reimagined against the backdrop of an East End community during the rise of the British Fascist Party in the 1930s. She describes this as “the project of my life”. 

Oberman, who married music producer Rob Cowan in 2004 and has a daughter, has also penned a host of plays, many BBC Radio 4, as well as writing for sketch shows.

In her Letter To My Younger Self, Oberman talks about bad hair days, an early lack of confidence and how she found her calling via another famous face. She also hails the joys of getting older.

At age 16 I’d just done my O levels and I hadn’t done brilliantly, so I was waiting to find out whether my dad was going to have a hissy fit at me. He was a real academic. I think he thought I was clever, but the school always told me I wasn’t. He wanted me to fulfil my potential. Which I did later. My other preoccupation was whether I was going to still be with my boyfriend if I went off to university. I’d been with him for about a year and a half and I was madly in love with him. In the end we did stay together for all of university. We lasted seven years, childhood sweethearts who were absolutely inseparable. But drama school finally put an end to it. But we’re still friends to this day. Your first love is an important part of your life, I think.  

I was obsessed with trying to get some conditioner to sort my curly hair out. I have really frizzy curly hair. The mid-’80s was not a good time for conditioner… I was born in the wrong decade. I was walking around like Aslan through the desert with the most dry, arid, curly hair waiting for a miracle. I had to wait till the 2000s for an answer, for John Frieda to come into my life. My daughter has curly hair and she looks like a Pre-Raphaelite mermaid. That was always my dream, but instead I looked like a mangy old lion. 

Tracy-Ann Oberman in 1968
1968: Getting to grips with the piano. Image: Courtesy of Tracy-Ann Oberman

When I got to Sixth Form College, I found that I was clever. I’d gone to a really arsey girls’ school that had all these shoulds and oughts. They really couldn’t cope with creativity. When I went to college, I had an amazing teacher, Mr Kirby. I loved him so much. I remember him giving me my essay back and I went to see him afterwards and said, I think you’ve made a mistake. You’ve given me an A minus; I’ve never got an A in anything. And he said, no, this is a really good essay. It’s really clever and interesting and out of the box. I just couldn’t believe it. Honestly, that school had made me feel so average. Then, first essay in, and this lovely young, very cool teacher said, you’re an A student. It changed my view of myself and my brain. He gave me the confidence to go on and become who I am, and I write plays now! So he changed my life.  

I think if you come from an immigrant family, with a Jewish background, you usually have a very close family. Friday night dinners, get togethers, and all very intergenerational, we saw our grandparents all the time. So the house was full of family members and our community of friends. There was a real sense of space and belonging. 

If you met the 16-year-old me your first impression would be a girl with massive curly hair who was always reading or with her boyfriend. And funny, very funny. There was a little gang of us and we were obsessed with Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, The Young Ones – comedy was a big driving motivator. I loved to read, that was my escape. 

Tracy- Ann Oberman aged three
1969: “Aged three at my sister’s birthday party with my great-grandma Annie who I adored. She escaped from the pogroms in Belarus and I’ve based my Shylock on her in The Merchant of Venice 1936.” Image: Courtesy of Tracy-Ann Oberman

I loved books and I loved the cinema. I loved storytelling. And I remember when I was five or six, my dad took me to see the Saturday matinee of a film called The Amazing Mr Blunden, a Lionel Jeffries film. It was this incredibly deep, brilliantly made, slightly scary film about two kids who go back into time, but it’s really about karmic retribution. I lost myself completely in it and thought, whatever that is, I want to be part of it. I would do lots of role playing in my room, pretending I was an actress. But my family were really nervous about it. They said no one becomes an actress except the children of actors and actresses. And so I just quietly imagined doing it without having access to it until I got to university. 

I was at the Raven Theatre in Leeds and a guy standing outside, a third-year student, said, “Hey, you should come in and audition”. That guy was Alistair McGowan – he was playing Faustus in Dr Faustus. I got the parts of Wagner and Helen of Troy and I thought, this is amazing! Then I got a role in a play directed by a guy called Peter Morgan. And I thought, this is what I want to do. I don’t want to do classics any more, I want to do drama. A few years later I got into the Royal Shakespeare Company. And I’ve never been unemployed since. 

Marrying music producer Rob Cowan in 2004
2004: Marrying music producer Rob Cowan. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

I was always told that girls whose grandparents started off in Cable Street in the East End didn’t become actresses or writers. I was going down the road less travelled for the family. People either took the piss out of me – “Oh, you want to be an actress?” – or they were very nervous for me. And now I look back at my career and think, god, you know, I really have created a body of work, and I have crossed genres. I really have. All I ever wanted was to do work that was interesting and different. I wanted to be creative and use my brain and I’ve been able to do that, whether it’s onstage at The National or the RSC or on TV doing Friday Night Dinner or Doctor Who. My younger self was a complete Doctor Who obsessive. Every Saturday I went to my friend Mark’s house, and a group of us watched it together. I was the only girl. If you’d told me that years later I was going to be working with the Cybermen and the Daleks, with David [Tennant] as The Doctor, that would have blown my mind.  

My older self would look back on my younger self and say, you’re allowed time off, you’re allowed to enjoy the journey. I lived in fear that every job might be my last job. I was so driven by needing to work all the time and make a shilling. I’d tell my younger self it’s OK not to be doing things. It’s OK just to be thinking and contemplating. I was very nervous about how things would work out and was this or that the right move – the older me is much more fearless. I would tell my younger self not to panic, you can take time off and nurture yourself and be nice to yourself. When I think of all the weddings and parties I missed over the years because I was working…  I look back now and think, it would have been OK to have said no to some of those jobs. 

There is a time I’d like to go back to, and put an arm around myself. My dad died suddenly [when she was in her twenties]. And we were very, very close. It was just devastating for me. I missed him so much. It was like this safe thing that I had felt so connected to had gone out of the world, and I had lost my best friend. I remember crying every night for about a month, every single day, thinking how long is it possible to cry before your eyes melt? I didn’t sleep for a month. I would put my arms around that girl her and say, it’s gonna be all right. This grief becomes a part of you. You will learn to live with that loss and you will be able to honour your dad in everything you do. And in time I was able to incorporate that grief, so much so that on my wedding day, I was so happy; I felt my dad was with me. And I’ve subsequently had enormous joy and happiness in my life. I think of walking into the Phoenix Theatre, where I’m doing Noises Off, and seeing my name, absolutely huge and in lights, and I smile and look up to my dad and say, see Dad, I’m not living in a bedsit with a load of cats. It’s all worked out OK.  

Tracy-Ann Oberman in Noises Off
2023: Starring in Noises Off with Matthew Kelly and Felicity Kendal. Image: David M. Benett/Max Cisotti/Dave Benett/Getty Images)

From where I’m standing now I’d say to my younger self, getting older is going to be fantastic. You’re going to feel more in your body, more easy in your skin. You’re going to feel more attractive, more able to do anything. It’s going to be liberating because you’re going to reach your peak at 50. And it’s just going to feel like it’s getting better and better. The opportunities, the self-understanding, the self-awareness, the dressing, the makeup, the hair, all of it. 

The Merchant of Venice 1936, starring Tracy-Ann Oberman as Shylock, opens at the Watford Palace Theatre on February 27

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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