The actor has made a documentary series about women’s lives today. She discusses power, single life and why being skinny didn’t make her happy
Kathy Burke is distracted. It’s the hottest day of the year, and she is desperate for a fag and a brew. “I’m gasping,” she says, disappearing outside for a couple of minutes before we start our interview. “It’s so hot, mate,” she says, when she reappears. “I wouldn’t normally leave the house on a day like this.” Then, just when I seem to have her full attention, her eyes dart upwards as she catches sight of a TV screen in the bar we are sitting in. “Sorry,” she says, sounding stressed. “I’m just distracted by Boris Johnson.”
With another interviewee, this turn of events would feel stressful – as if you are never going to be able to get their attention. But with Burke, it’s quite the opposite. As she tacks another affectionate “babe” on to the end of a sentence or triumphantly declares: “That’s such a good cup of tea,” she is very much in the room with you. She is, of course, described by fans and critics as being “natural” and “down to earth”. Burke, people say, is a Real Person, citing incidents such as the letter she sent to Time Out magazine in the 90s, calling out Helena Bonham Carter for complaining about being posh and pretty. In the letter, she referred to herself as “a lifelong member of the non-pretty working classes”, and signed off with a four-letter word. More recently, there was her Twitter feed, where she referred to the “twats” and “dicks” who run the world – most recently, those supporting gun rights in the US.
The 55-year-old’s work has ranged from brash comic characters, such as Gimme Gimme Gimme’s Linda La Hughes (usually found snogging a poster of Liam Gallagher), to a domestic abuse victim opposite Ray Winstone in the film Nil By Mouth (for which she won best actress at Cannes in 1997) to a host of stage credits as a director. However, perhaps her best-known role is as Burke herself – the unluvviest luvvie of them all, who resides within a sought-after Islington postcode by default, having been born there to an Irish immigrant family. Does all this talk of her “normalness” ever get boring? “I like it, it’s fine,” she laughs. “It’s much better than being described as aloof or in your own bubble.”
It is exactly Burke’s relatable, national-treasure status that has led to her latest project: a three-part documentary about what it is to be a woman today, dealing with the themes of beauty and image; work and motherhood; and sex and relationships. The producers came to her, she says, “because I’m quite normal, I think”. And, in the programme, whether she is interviewing the Love Island contestant Megan Barton-Hanson, an Anglican nun or members of the sweary Profanity Embroidery Group (“like the punk version of the WI”), you get the sense that she is someone people think they already know. Nobody, she says, “seemed that shy around me”. And, of course, she is very funny – offering her own withering perspectives as she finds out about her subjects’ lives and challenges. Among them, a man who has had an affair and bought a Jag isn’t going through a midlife crisis, “he’s a fucking twat”. And, on discovering the existence of the “vajacial”, a facial-style vagina treatment: “Steam your fanny – fuck off!”
One of her favourite subjects was the rapper Nadia Rose, whom she interviewed about the pressures of the music industry, in particular when it comes to looks (“What a girl! She is great at what she does, and she expresses it – it’s so refreshing”), while Barton-Hanson, who discusses how she has had plastic surgery to further her “influencer” career, was a revelation. “I liked what she had to say; she’s in control of herself.”
Burke has often spoken about the challenges of growing up in an all-male household (her mother, Bridget, died of cancer when Burke was a baby). At the all-girl convent school she went to, she has said she was known as “the little fella in a skirt” because she was so tomboyish. She has had to wrestle with the societal expectation – which she describes as “a crock of shit” – that at some point, she should have married and had kids. The reason she hasn’t is simple: she didn’t want to. She is single at the moment, but says she hasn’t entirely sworn off another relationship. It’s just that she is perfectly content without being in one.
After Burke’s win at Cannes, she left London for a brief stint in Hollywood, appearing opposite Meryl Streep in the 1998 period drama Dancing at Lughnasa, about a group of unmarried sisters in 1930s Ireland. “I sound like such an ungrateful wanker now,” she laughs. “But the more successful I became as an actor, the less control I had. I became more of a puppet, really. It certainly felt like that, at least.” There is a powerful scene in the first documentary, in which she goes to visit the photographer Rankin, who she asks – in the way that she does – for “a little bit of turd-polishing”. While she is in his studio, he shows her some photographs he took of her at the turn of the millennium, when her career was taking off. “I remember that period in my life so strongly because I was in a really bad place,” she says, recounting “a breakdown” she had in the late 90s, at around the time she was in Hollywood. “It really pissed me off. I was, like, why am I suddenly attractive now that I’m skinny?”
Her appearance proved particularly pertinent during the making of the documentary; just before she was due to start filming, she was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, a condition that causes temporary facial paralysis. For Burke, it brought back painful memories of 2007, when she contracted the superbug C difficile in hospital when she was being treated for other health problems. She almost died, and was out of work for a year, so falling ill again was another blow. “It was such a shock,” she says. “It was, like, oh my God. What’s happened? But the production company were brilliant – luckily the executive producer had had it as a kid, so she knew exactly what it entailed and how long it would take for me to get better.” She had acupuncture, which helped a lot, and it is not noticeable on screen. “Basically,” she deadpans, “it would’ve been better if my face was moving, than if it wasn’t.”
I wonder what it is like for someone who never knew their own mother to make a documentary about motherhood. Despite being raised around men – her father and two brothers – she has always had strong relationships with other women. It began with her mother’s friend, Joan, and her godmother, Nellie, who helped to raise her, and who were fixtures in her childhood. “I suppose the only downside of being looked after by these women was them making me go to mass,” she laughs. She had a social worker when she was younger, who introduced her to Pat, a young woman who was writing a thesis on motherless girls. “She was fantastic,” she says. “She took me to places like art galleries and the theatre, which weren’t things we ever did as kids. The only bad bit was being able to ride in black taxis because it’s the only way I’ve wanted to travel since.”
Later, she would meet Anna Scher, a “big inspiration” to Burke, whose renowned community theatre school has turned out many EastEnders actors and stars such as Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya. For her debut film role, in the 1982 prison drama Scrubbers, she worked with the Swedish actor and director Mai Zetterling, who was “like a horse whisperer with me, really … she was constantly telling me: ‘You need to write, you need to direct, you need to create your own work.’ She wouldn’t stand for any crap, even in the 80s, when the industry was totally run by men.” Not long after, Burke began to collaborate with Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, going on to appear as the straight-talking editor Magda alongside Saunders on Absolutely Fabulous. “They were like my big sisters of comedy,” she says. “They were just brilliant and so encouraging. I was doing theatre at that point, and very much into it, but there was no money in it. I’d get a call now and again from them, saying: ‘We’re going to put you in a sketch if you’re free.’ And I’d be, like: ‘Yep, yep, I’m there!’”
It is the “generosity of spirit, understanding, all the nice, positive things” that she experienced from the many female role models in her life that Burke says is the key to All Woman. She wanted to create a series of films celebrating rather than denigrating women – even if Burke doesn’t always agree with the choices the subjects make. Take Laura, a young woman who, in the first episode, we see contemplating breast enlargement. “I have always believed that women should be allowed to do what they want to do,” she says. “But I do think people are making a hell of a lot of money out of other people’s insecurities.”
Celebrating women doesn’t have to mean “bashing men”, either, Burke says, expressing her happiness that “men are [now] allowed to have feelings”. However, while there is mention of same-sex relationships, as some viewers may note, the documentary does avoid one contentious gender-related issue: the rights or lack thereof of transgender women. Was this a conscious decision? “We talked about maybe talking to trans women in this, but it’s such a huge subject that I, personally, didn’t want it to be just a passing moment,” says Burke. “I think that needs to be a whole separate programme.” She pauses. “With trans people, I just think you can’t help the way you are born, though. You know, it’s DNA, it’s genetics. I’m just glad people can do things about their own happiness. I think this thought process that they’re trying to wipe out women is a bit ridiculous – it’s a minority of people.”
Her eyes dart up to the headlines on the TV again. There’s no Johnson, but instead news about the economy. “The whole thing is a terrible mess,” she says. “I really feel for young people, I don’t know what they’re going to do. Especially living in London, they can’t afford a place to live and they won’t be able to afford to eat soon. Look at Hoxton [in east London]. Hoxton was a shit-hole, and now it costs a fortune to live in someone’s bin shed.” If she were voting tomorrow, who would she back? “I’d probably go Green because I am really worried about climate change and the planet. I’ve been a Labour voter all my life …” her voice trails off. “But I don’t know how I feel about things at the moment, quite honestly.” I wonder if, in light of her making a documentary series about women, she ever had any respect for Theresa May as a woman holding the country’s highest office? “I think that’s crap,” Burke says quickly. “If we want equality, we shouldn’t then expect to be praised just because we’re doing a certain job. That’s not equality. Equality is acknowledging that she did a shit job.”
Burke’s next directorial project is a “ukulele comedy”, Honest Amy – which is at the Edinburgh fringe this month. It is a one-woman show starring Amy Booth-Steel, who also wrote it, and one of the main reasons Burke was keen to direct it was its crossover with the All Woman documentary. “She talks a lot about the same things, like body image,” she explains. “It’s a story about dealing with PTSD and depression after having cancer. I just empathised. I know where this young lady is coming from because after I got really sick, the toughest thing to deal with was what it did to my mental health.”
Her main takeaway from both experiences, she says, is that women need to stop criticising one another. “I’m not here to tell people what they should and shouldn’t be doing,” she says. “I’m no Ann Widdecombe. One of the main themes about the documentary is, ‘Let’s just stop having a go at each other. Let’s stop judging each other all the time.’”
An hour later, with the sun still blazing, our interview is over. Burke swills her last dribble of tea, accosts the waitress so she can tell her “it’s a good cuppa here”, and goes in search of her publicist – and maybe another cheeky smoke. (“I think it’s time for a fag, babe,” she says.) But, before she goes, she wants to be fully clear about her intentions. “I really love women,” she says, with a smile. “And I do think things are getting better, I think we’re getting there.”
Kathy Burke’s All Woman starts on Tuesday 13 August on Channel 4.
By Hannah J Davies. Original article here.