Kathy Burke is one of the most loved British actresses of her generation. She is certainly one of the most versatile. Having played small parts in several cult movies and plays during her early 20s, she suddenly popped into the nation’s conscious aged 26 when she appeared on TV in Harry Enfield’s Television Show.
Playing a variety of comic characters – including perhaps the most memorable: Waynetta Slob, an uncouth, chain-smoking, pizza-munching council-estate mother – she captivated audiences with her confident brashness and ready ability to appear in an unflattering light. She was also extremely funny.
Kathy was immediately taken to the bosom of the blossoming British alternative comedy scene, appearing in several Comic Strip films and playing numerous roles in the French & Saunders hit TV series. But while the stars of that scene largely failed to translate their acting ability to more serious roles, Kathy always had a deeper side to her character, born of her difficult and traumatic childhood.
Her mother died of cancer when she was just two and she was raised by foster neighbours until the age of six when she returned to her alcoholic Irish builder father and two older brothers. It was a difficult time – her father was often out of work and abusive and violent when drunk. But she made her peace with him shortly before he also succumbed to cancer in the 90s.
She found her salvation in acting, attending the famous Anna Scher school in her neighbourhood of Islingtonin north London, which offered free courses to the poor. A year later, she got her first acting role in Scrubbers, aged 18. She then spent the next few years play bit-parts, something she has in part attributed to the fact she spent most of her 20s drunk. When she finally broke free of that draw at 26, Kathy was to use the observation, humour and sense of tragedy that a spell of drunkenness often lends to people to forge her way into the nation’s hearts.
She starred in the critically acclaimed play Amongst Barbarians at the Royal Exchange and directed her first play – the darkly humourous Mr Thomas that she had written aged just 22 – featuring old friend Ray Winstone in the lead role and put on at her local drinking hole, The Old Red Lion.
For the next few years, Kathy seamlessly combined the widely different demands of serious acting roles and comic characters, appearing again in Harry Enfield’s Chums programme, French & Saunders, as well as several plays, including Mike Leigh’s It’s a Great Big Shame, and notably playing the handicapped Martha in TV drama Mr Wroe’s Virgins – for which she won the Royal Television Society’s Best Actress award in 1993.
She started to become recognised – invited onto celebrity gameshows as herself and with newspaper articles running interviews – but meanwhile found the time to direct another play by up-and-coming playwright Jonathan Harvey, Boom Bang-a-Bang. As so it continued until Gary Oldman begun casting for his first film, a gritty look at a dysfunctional family in South-East London. Ray Winstone was already cast in the lead role as violent alcoholic Ray and suggested his old friend Kath for the role of abused wife Valerie.
She was to win three Best Actress awards for Nil by Mouth, including the Cannes Palme D’Or, for her extraordinary performance – and be nominated for many more. The awards opened doors that were usually only for pretty young things. The next few years saw her appear in a number of films – Dancing at Lughnasa with Meryl Streep, Elizabeth, This Year’s Love, Love, Honour and Obey – while continuing to appear in British comedy series (stealing the odd episode of Absolutely Fabulous with her portrayal of fast-talking, fast-thinking magazine editor Magda).
But her assertion that she was too ugly to be given a leading lady role proved depressingly accurate. Eventually it was a comedy series written by her old friend and playwright Jonathan Harvey that gave the first chance to lead from the front. Gimme Gimme Gimme had a difficult first series but soon found its feet and ran for two more series, winning her more awards and being shifted from BBC2 to BBC1 in recognition of its success.
The work came flooding in and she continued to hot-foot between comedy, TV, films, theatre and directing, with the odd personal appearance. When the great British public saw that the actress on their screens was witty, self-deprecating, honest, down-to-earth and erudite, as well as hugely talented, it was only a matter of time before the term “national institution” started being bandied about. Now, it is rare that her esteemed status doesn’t make it into interviews.
Soon, however, it became clear that the theatre was where her heart truly lay. She talked of the tediousness of acting and turned down roles while increasing her director workload, producing three plays in London in one year. Just to make things clear, she told the media in 2002 that her acting career was over and she was going to concentrate instead on creating shows, rather than being a small cog in a big wheel.
Kathy has spent the latter part of her career directing plays and largely leaving TV and movies behind
It seems unlikely that such a talented actress will never return to the screen or stage though, especially since her age means available roles won’t demand the same level of physical perfection. Kathy is at her very best playing real characters with real and complex emotions and the future may hold many opportunities for her to play the sort of role that only a person with a deep knowledge of life can really do justice to.