This time last year Tracy Ann Oberman was crying in the car outside her daughter’s school, after receiving a barrage of anti-Semitic abuse on Twitter. It was the first time the actor – best known for her role in EastEnders as Dirty Den’s beleaguered wife, Chrissie Watts – had come into contact with trolls.
She was caught in an argument about graffiti on the Warsaw Ghetto walls, which reads “Free Gaza”. To her, the ghetto is an open grave, a place where members of her family died. But for every emotive tweet she sent to that effect, a wave of abuse followed.
“I was so upset,” she recalls. “I had never done this before, but I tweeted out in the moment: ‘I’m crying in the car… My great-uncle was the only survivor of our family in the Warsaw Ghetto. I loved him.”
The 53-year-old is taking legal action against 70 people for libel in a high-profile battle alongside Countdown presenter Rachel Riley, who on Monday launched a campaign called “Don’t Feed the Trolls” with other public figures including Eddie Izzard and Sadiq Khan. Oberman also quit the Labour Party in protest at what she sees as a lack of action against anti-Semitism.
Tonight the play Mother of Him opens at the Park Theatre. Oberman plays Brenda, a single mother whose son is accused of a serious crime.
“I understand the feeling Brenda has of being caught up in a media storm,” says Oberman, over lunch in the foyer of the Finsbury Park theatre, where we meet. “Suddenly, my inner thoughts had touched a nerve and the next thing I knew I was at the front of this debate.”
It is a conversation that continues to rage and, on the morning of our interview, Oberman has again been tweeting about the Warsaw Ghetto after the BBC invited radical left-wing commentator Ash Sarkar, who had previously sent "solidarity" to the 'Free Gaza' graffiti activists, to speak on its Rise of the Nazis documentary. (Sarkar, who said she thought the graffiti was anti-racist rather than anti-Semitic, defended her inclusion in the documentary, as did the BBC).
“We’re living through really difficult, dangerous, provocative, horrifying times,” says Oberman. “Every day, my mouth drops further and further.”
A self-described Luddite, Oberman joined Twitter in 2009, after David Baddiel and Omid Djalili told her, on the set of The Infidel, she would “love it”. And she did – to begin with.
“It was like being at the wittiest party,” she says. “I would wake up to Stephen Fry every morning, then be watching Bake Off with Sue Perkins.” Save for the occasional “dick pic”, which she would blithely delete, Oberman thought Twitter was a “sweet, funny, warm little village”.
But in 2017, she noticed a darker side. “A new vernacular was coming out of the Left about Rothschilds, Zionist-controlled media and the idea that there were Jewish cabals organising nefariously behind the scenes,” she says. She was shocked by the abuse of Luciana Berger MP, and expected “one of the grown-ups in the Labour Party to make a strong statement and say ‘not in my name’. But it never happened.”
Tired of waiting for Labour and Twitter to tackle the abuse, she and Riley took action into their own hands. “It got to the point where I couldn’t allow libels to hang around on social media,” she says. “There have to be real-life repercussions to what you post.” Their lawyer has sent warnings to the accused, who include professionals working in law, management and entertainment. Some have apologised and/or settled; others have lost their jobs.
Oberman now wants social media regulation. “If sites aren’t prepared to take responsibility,” she says, “there will have to be a change in the law.” As a first step, she believes they should rethink anonymity online, and stop trolls from hiding in plain sight.
But social media has its charms, Oberman adds. The torrent of abuse was accompanied by a wave of support.
“It has given me bravery,” she says.
The experience has also inspired her podcast series, Trolled, in which Oberman interviews celebrities who have also been the target of online abuse. Guests include Gary Lineker, who faced a backlash after speaking out against corruption at Fifa; Berger, who has now joined the Liberal Democrats; and Baddiel, who talked to her about the time trolls accused him of being a paedophile, after a young fan posted a picture with him.
“I feel blessed that creatively this whole incident has unlocked an outpouring, because I’m firing on all cylinders at the moment,” she says.
Another forthcoming project is a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, set on Cable Street in the era of Oswald Mosley, in which she will play Shylock, the controversial Jewish moneylender, as a matriarch. “It shows the misogyny of anti-Semitism,” she says, which is something she also thinks is apparent on Twitter. “Often I would put out a tweet alongside male friends of mine, and I was the one who would get the abuse – misogynistic and anti-Semitic.”
Oberman tries to keep her family, which includes her husband, music producer Rob Cowan, and their 13-year-old daughter, out of the fray. She and Cowan have been married since 2004, and he often wonders why she puts herself through the online saga. “He thinks all social media is insane,” she says.
Mother of Him has thrown up new questions about parenthood for Oberman, including: how responsible are you for your children’s actions, can you love your child through anything, and do you ever really know who they are?
“It’s very topical, particularly with the mental health issues among our teenagers,” she says. “I have a number of friends whose lovely children seemed to be perfectly happy, but have recently ended up in psychiatric units for depression, self-harm and eating disorders. Their parents had no knowledge of it. It’s so frightening.”
She is reluctant to talk about her own daughter (“there are mad people out there”), but says: “You try to make them the best version of themselves they can be. Every time something goes wrong, one does feel guilt.”
For her generation, Oberman is pleased that women now have a strong voice at home and work. Since the MeToo movement, she has noticed a boom in female directors, and rising confidence among actresses – “and I’m going to reclaim the word ‘actress’. Whatever phase you’re going through, women are much more supportive of one another now,” she says. “It’s really empowering.”
In a way, reality is finally catching up with the soap world. “Some of the best-drawn middle-aged women were seen through soap,” she says. “Dot Cotton, Pat Butcher, Pauline Fowler… They’re really great women.”
Will Chrissie Watts ever reappear on the small screen? A Sally Challen-style appeal would make interesting weeknight viewing.
“The tragedy of Chrissie is that she didn’t have a good enough lawyer,” says Oberman. “She could have pleaded self-defence for mental abuse. She has spent more time in prison than most murderers.”
As for Oberman’s trolls, they still attack her, but she sees them as part of her everyday life. “If they’re trying to run me off [Twitter] that badly,” she says, “I must be saying something that is reaching people.”
Mother of Him is at the Park Theatre (London N4, 020 7870 6876 parktheatre.co.uk) from tonight until Oct 2