Tracking down Tracey
PUBLISHED: 14:37 19 November 2013 | UPDATED: 14:37 19 November 2013
Masterchef regular, restaurant critic and former Late Show presenter Tracey MacLeod talks to Pat Parker about her childhood in Ipswich, her media career, how she became the inspiration for one of Bridget Jones's best friends, and why she loves spending her holidays in Walberswick.
Tracey MacLeod rolls up on her bike to the Anchor at Walberswick, her long blonde hair streaming in the bracing coastal wind.
Tracey – former Late Show presenter, restaurant reviewer and Masterchef critic – spends most of her holidays in the Suffolk village, and has done for the last ten years. It is, literally, a second home. “There’s a community here – we are a community of friends who have known each other for years, and our kids have grown up together. Our boys have learnt to ride bikes here, and have a sense of freedom they can’t have in London, where we don’t have a garden. I love the sea-swimming and cycle tours round the neighbouring villages. And there are so many good places to eat and drink here now – the food scene’s really improved.” That, coming from the award-winning Independent restaurant critic, is praise indeed.
Tracey is part of the Walberswick media set which includes the Freuds and Richard Curtis. Richard worked on the screenplay for the film version of Bridget Jones’s Diary, based on her friend Helen Fielding’s book. Helen’s original Bridget Jones column in the Independent
was inspired by her escapades with Tracey and director Sharon Maguire. So which of Bridget’s best friends is Tracey – Shazzer or Jude? “Well, I was the ranting feminist, so I might well be Shazzer,” smiles Tracey. “But it was based more on the dynamics of three female friends rather than me being one or other of them.”
Spending so much of her free time in Walberswick has a strong nostalgic appeal for Tracey, who grew up in Ipswich and regularly holidayed on the Suffolk coast. “We had a caravan in Sizewell, and that’s where we spent our summer holidays as kids,” she says. “I have great memories of just running in and out of the sea, playing on the beach, riding our bikes and playing with the same friends every year. So this is all very familiar. One of my earliest memories is looking round Sizewell A when it first opened. My mum still has the caravan at Sizewell.”
Tracey was born in 1960, the daughter of an Anglo-Indian mother and a London dentist who bought a practice in Ipswich for a quieter life. Hers was a comfortable, modest, middle-class family, and she attended the independent Ipswich High School. “Ipswich was a good place to grow up,” she says. “You could have relative freedom as a teenager, but there were downsides as well as upsides. We saw both sides of life.”
What sort of pupil was she at the all-girls’ school? “Well, meeting up with old school friends now, I think I was probably a bit of a nuisance – rather cheeky and a little disruptive,” she smiles. “Not to the extent that I was disciplined – but I think I failed to live up to my academic potential.”
Keen to become a journalist, she was offered a traineeship on the East Anglian Daily Times. “But I decided to go off to university instead. Otherwise, I might still be there!”
So she made the break and went to Durham to read English. But shortly after graduating, her father died suddenly. Tracey, aged 22, had to come home to look after the family. “We had to sell the practice quickly, and find my mum somewhere else to live,” she says. “It was an awful time.”
During this unhappy period, however, she spotted an ad in the Evening Star headed: “Journalist seeks assistant”. “I thought, ‘That sounds good!’ It was a job helping a legendary character called Elkan Allan, who had invented Ready, Steady, Go. He’d then gone into newspapers and invented the modern concept of TV listings while working for the Sunday Times. I worked as a sub-editor and writer at his house, which was an old vicarage in Trimley St Mary.”
After a year or so, Elkan sold the magazine to a London publisher, and Tracey moved with it. She went on write for The Stage before becoming a researcher for the BBC chat show, Wogan. “I met so many big names,” she remembers. “My first job was to go to Dallas and arrange a live interview with Victoria Principal and Linda Gray, who played Sue Ellen. I met legendary stars like Peter Cushing, Kenneth Williams and Eartha Kitt. And Wogan was lovely to work with - really good fun, and very naughty!”
Tracey’s first chance to appear on screen came with C4’s ground-breaking show Network 7, co-created by Janet Street-Porter. “It was one of the first ‘youth’ programmes, and they had lots of cool, trendy presenters like Magenta Devine,” says Tracey. “I was the straight one. It was a really good experience, but hard, hard work.”
The Late Show
Tracey went on to become one of the regular presenters of BBC2’s The Late Show, along with the likes of Michael Ignatieff, Paul Morley and Kirsty Wark. “I loved the music side of it,” she says. “I met people like Johnny Cash, and Jeff Buckley gave one of his only TV appearances. I did a long special with Joni Mitchell, and spent a whole day with Elvis Costello. In the interview, he launched a diatribe against Margaret Thatcher, which caused quite a hoo-hah in the papers the next day.”
Then there was the Stone Roses debacle, when the studio power cut out mid-performance. An embarrassed Tracey had to talk to camera while singer Ian Brown furiously yelled “Amateurs!” behind her. “It regularly pops up on TV blooper shows,” she grins. “I bumped into Ian in the street a few years ago and he apologised. He said, ‘Sorry about that, love!’”
Although she loved meeting the musicians, Tracey felt ill-at-ease on the show. “I always felt slightly out of my depth. I loved the opportunities I had to meet incredibly interesting people, but I didn’t enjoy presenting live. I couldn’t relax.”
As a result, Tracey disappeared from our screens for almost 15 years, firstly becoming head of development at Planet 24, the production company behind The Word and The Big Breakfast, before going on work in a wide range of media roles, including presenting her own show on BBC 6 Music.
Bridget et al
It was while she was presenting The Late Show in the early 1990s that Tracey became friends with Sharon Maguire, a director on the show, and Helen Fielding, then a journalist. The three were all freelance, footloose and single. “We used to have adventures and misadventures, and certain lines and scenarios became exaggerated and ended up in Helen’s Independent column, Bridget Jones’s Diary,” says Tracey. “If we’d been on a mini-break or flirted with some whippersnappers at a party, she’d write about it in a fictionalised way.”
Of course, none of them guessed back then that the column would go on to become a best-selling book and globally successful film. Sharon Maguire directed the first Bridget Jones film, ensuring Tracey made a brief appearance in the book-launch scene, chatting with Salman Rushdie and Colin Firth. “I made sure I wore my green check suit so I’d stand out!” says Tracey.
In the new Bridget Jones book, Mad About the Boy, which has just been released, Helen has killed off Darcy and Bridget is now a widowed mother in her early 50s.
Like Helen, Tracey had her two children in her 40s. “I’m still friends with Helen, and we’re still going through the same things together in terms of having young kids and so on, so I’m really looking forward to reading the new book.”
Helen had also previously been restaurant critic for the Independent on Sunday, and Tracey and Sharon often used to accompany her on reviewing trips. One week when Helen was away, Tracey was offered the chance to write the review instead. The editors were so impressed, they made her restaurant critic on the Independent – a role she has held since 1997.
Her reviews are sharp, witty and entertaining. “It’s much easier to write a rave review or a hatchet job,” she says. “The real challenges are the boring ones which are, like most restaurants, quite good, but probably not worth going back to. So there are basically only three or four stories, and the trick is to find a different way of telling them each time.”
It was her reputation as a restaurant critic that led to her becoming a judge on Masterchef. In fact, she had previously been approached to audition as one of its original presenters. “But I didn’t take it up, because I knew it wasn’t something I’d be good at. And in any case with Gregg and John they have the perfect combo – they really struck gold with those two.”
When she was asked to act as a critic on the show, however, she thought it sounded like fun. “What’s not to enjoy about eating all that delicious food? We film over the course of a day, with food coming at regular intervals, and sometimes we have to eat five two-course meals. I try not to finish everything – but sometimes it’s so good it’s hard not to clean the plate!”
Has she had to endure any real shockers? “Yes, a few. There was one chef who had made Vietnamese spring rolls, and the chillies she was given were far stronger than she’d realised. I took one bite and started violently hiccupping on camera. I was unable to speak, my face was going red, my nose was running – and then they cut between me and Gregg doing exactly the same!”
She thinks she is probably the kindest of the three usual critics - Jay Rayner, Charles Campion and herself. “I understand that most people are rooting for the contestants. They don’t want them to be humiliated, so I generally try to find something positive to say.”
When the critics read the menus for the dishes they are to sample, they only contain the contestants’ first names. But in the recent Celebrity series, when Tracey saw that a certain “Janet” was intending to serve up roadkill pheasant escalopes (the roadkill description was edited out of the broadcast show), she guessed that this was her friend and former flat-mate Janet Street-Porter. “I thought, ‘I know who this is!’ Janet has always been ahead of the curve, and has picked up on the whole trend for foraging and using wild ingredients!”
Tracey’s favourite food is Asian. “I love Vietnamese food – I love the herbs, the freshness and the lightness of it. When you eat quite a lot for a living, it’s nice to eat something that’s absolutely tasty but fairly guilt-free!”
She enjoys challenging herself in the kitchen, and while in Walberswick this summer, she enjoyed cooking paella, made from fish and seafood sold fresh from the harbour huts across the river. “There are some lovely ingredients round here, and the challenge is to find the best thing to do with them!”
These days, Tracey works as co-director of the talent agency KBJ Management, where her clients include Kevin McCloud from Grand Designs and comedian Simon Amstell. “It was started by my friend Joanna Kaye, who also has a house here in Walberswick, and I joined the company when she was on maternity leave ten years ago,” she says. “It was the perfect outlet because it combines my experience on television, radio, newspapers and production. It’s about knowing what’s right for people and having good instincts.” She is keen to encourage clients not necessarily to chase the big money, but to consider what is best for their career long term.
Her partner is the author and journalist Harry Ritchie, and together they have two boys, David, 12 and Alec, seven. Her mother still lives in Woodbridge, so their frequent stays in Walberswick offer the chance for get-togethers with family and friends.
“I love the simplicity of life here – it’s old-fashioned, there are beautiful views, and it has that whole artistic tradition. It really is a salve for busy creative people. For me, it really is like coming home.”
Tracey’s Suffolk favourites.
Favourite beach? Shingle Street, because it’s one of the only beaches where you can lie at a 45 degree angle! I love its weird isolation. We rented a house there a few years back and I just found it magical.”
Favourite walk? I love to walk from Walberswick to Dunwich. On the way out you can walk across the marshes and you get a real variety of landscape – reed beds, common, woodland. And then on the way back you can trudge along the beach.
Favourite restaurant? The Anchor at Walberswick, the British Larder at Woodbridge, and Upstairs at Baileys in Beccles.
Favourite view? The power stations at Sizewell, viewed from the beach – they look better the further away you get! And the lighthouse at Southwold is always lovely to see – like a beacon calling you home.
Favourite village? Walberswick – of course!