The perfect connections: Gary Oldman, Harry Enfield, Meryl Streep. The perfect credentials: best actress gong, Time Out award, adoring public. Yet Kathy Burke is a lady unafraid to act unladylike.
Two weeks ago, Kathy Burke was shopping in Waitrose on London’s Holloway Road. As she nudged her trolley along the aisles of fresh fruit, pet food and microwave dinners, she was stopped by a series of strangers. Some told the 34-year-old actress how much they laughed at her sex starved, wig-wearing harridan in Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, the sitcom which has just finished its successful run on BBC2; others, including one slightly stiff middle-aged man, congratulated Burke on her recent portrayal of Mary Tudor in Elizabeth, the dynamic costume drama. That morning she had also received a letter from a nun she had last seen at her all-girl, Catholic secondary school. The sister had watched Burke alongside Meryl Streep in Dancing at Lughnasa, an adaptation of Brian Friel’s West End play, and been moved to write.
“People feel that they know me,” says Burke, sitting in an elegant suite at One Aldwych, the London hotel where she is promoting the romantic comedy This Year’s Love. Dressed in a gold dressing gown and green hair curlers, she looks more ready for bed than the photoshoot planned this afternoon. She asks apologetically if she can smoke, decides to leave the curlers in for the interview – and constantly readjusts the candy-coloured plastic tubes as she talks.
It is hardly surprising that people feel they know Kathy Burke. They have all seen her battered, dignified wife in Nil by Mouth, for which she won the best actress award at Cannes in 1997; her slow-witted peasant in BBC2’s BAFTA-winning Mr Wroe’s Virgins; or Waynetta Slob, the chain-smoking nightmare from Harry Enfield’s Television Programme. Audiences see the charismatic figures on screen and warm, inevitably, to the woman.
“She’s adored by the general public,” says David Kane, writer and director of Burke’s current film This Year’s Love and a friend of hers since the mid-Eighties. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think she’s fantastic. She touches people because her roles always contain nuggets of reality. They’re extremes – not everyone is pummelled as badly as she was in Nil by Mouth or smokes as much as Waynetta – but they’re also rooted in the everyday.” Kane thinks women especially appreciate her portrayals of what he describes as “real” people. “She’s never someone else’s vision of what a woman should be.”
During preparations for This Year’s Love, Burke asked Kane to alter her character of the lonely Irish airport cleaner. She felt that the original came across as too nice and earthy: “There needed to be more of a problem with her – otherwise, why was she alone? I told David he shouldn’t be shy of having her put herself down,” says Burke. The film now includes her waking up in bed with the gigolo and would-be artist Dougray Scott, and announcing, “You’ve pulled a fat bird. I’ll get me coat.”
Burke acknowledges that her characters lean towards excess and sometimes wishes she were more subtle. But despite the personal affection from fans, she has never played herself – it only seems that way. “If ever I come across a script where the character is really like me,” she says, “I won’t do it.”
After winning the best actress award at Cannes, Burke was faced with giving interviews for the first time and found it difficult to persuade the press that she didn’t base her Nil by Mouth character on herself. In the film she plays the bruised and beaten wife of violent alcoholic Ray Winstone. When asked about her background, Burke was open about her father’s binge drinking, but now feels that the dots were instantly joined and it was assumed she was drawing on personal experience to play the role. As her father had died of prostate cancer in 1985, he was unable to set the record straight. “It was disrespectful to his memory, it was really upsetting,” she says.
The tabloid version of Kathy Burke’s life is as follows: born into the working-class core of Islington, her mother Bridie died of breast cancer when Burke was two and she was raised by her father Paddy and two elder brothers, John and Barry. The council flat they lived in was described by the Daily Mail as “squalid”. The truth is more human. Burke loved her father but didn’t trust him. She was wary of his alcoholism: “You never knew when he was gonna hit the bottle again.” But, looking back, she can appreciate how the pressures of being an Irish building labourer and looking after three children made him succumb to drink.
She sees the last decade of his life as more important than the effects his boozing had on the family’s early years: “In the last ten years we became mates,” she says. During that period he gave up drinking, on his own, without recourse to AA, and found a new, less physically destructive job as a porter at Ironmonger Row swimming baths. He saved money for the first time, using it to travel to Yugoslavia and Spain. “Once he found that job he flew. The shame was that we were planning to go on holiday together and then he got really poorly. But we had a lot of long chats in the last few months. He told me about his childhood and how difficult it was to find work when he came over here.”
He always expressed pride in his daughter’s work but preferred Mr Thomas, the play Burke wrote as a teenager, above anything else on her CV. Set in a world of lonely Fifties bedsits, it was staged at the Old Red Lion theatre in Islington and won a Time Out award. Ironically, the cast included Nil by Mouth‘s Ray Winstone. “Dad said it reminded him of when he came to England,” she says. “The alcohol part was in there – everyone was a boozer, but they weren’t drunks. They were just lonely people.”
So Burke’s role in Nil by Mouth isn’t grotesque autobiography, only someone she might have been. “After Nil by Mouth I did say, ‘there but for the grace of God go I’,” she admits. “And that’s true. I might have ended up marrying someone who had problems.”
Instead, acting altered the course of her life. Her talent was realised in improvisations encouraged by her third-year English teacher, Mr Poole, at her convent school in Euston. She was the class star and most lessons would end with her and Mr Poole entertaining the other pupils. “Saucy secretary” was the firm favourite. “It was only ‘cos I wasn’t shy about doing the flirting,” she says. “The others liked that he was put on the spot – he was the only man in a room of girls.”
Following Poole’s advice, at 16 she enrolled on a drama course at the Kingsway College of Further Education and began at Anna Scher, but always playing the cleaner, someone’s mum or an old bag became disheartening. She decided she wanted to be a music journalist instead and wrote for the college paper. She also spent too much time at pub gigs, took a Saturday job in a cake shop and began enjoying herself. “College was like being let out of a cage,” she says. “There were blokes there. And it was in the days when you got a grant. I had some freedom.”
When she was 17, Burke was cast in Scrubbers, the poor sister to Alan Clarke’s borstal drama Scum and written by the same author, Roy Minton. It secured her Equity card and invaluable advice from its veteran Swedish director, the late Mai Zetterling. She warned Burke to control her destiny. “She said, ‘don’t let them stereotype you’,” says Burke. “She said it would be easy for me to do one type of role and that would be it.”
Burke had already suffered from decisions made on her behalf. When she was 11, both her primary school and her father decided a single-sex convent school would suit a girl who had grown up motherless in an all male family. Her own request to attend a mixed local comprehensive was ignored.
“They were doing what they thought was best,” she says. “But they didn’t understand. My brothers were academic (both won scholarships to London Oratory) but I wasn’t like that. Though I was good at primary school – I was ahead of everyone else at reading – at secondary school I was useless.”
The good intentions failed and it was actually the combination of a male-dominated home and predominantly female schooling which proved unsettling. “I sometimes felt a bit weird when I was a kid,” she says, “and I think that was the reason. I did get along better with boys than girls. With girls I couldn’t get used to the bitchiness. One minute you’re sharing a cigarette with them and the next they’ve formed a gang and it’s your turn to get your head kicked in. Boys weren’t like that.”
After Scrubbers, Burke dallied with alternative comedy, briefly appearing in The Comic Strip Presents and playing scummy Tina Bishop, a prototype Waynetta Slob on Jonathon Ross’s Eighties chat show The Last Resort. Time between television shows was spent gathering more movie experience with the notoriously idiosyncratic British director Alex Cox. In 1986 she followed him to Spain to film the spaghetti western parody Straight to Hell. Burke thought the script was hopeless but was lured by a cast that included the rebellious folk punk outfit The Pogues and Joe Strummer, former lead singer of The Clash. “It was great fun but the work was fg stupid,” she says. “Cox was nuts on Straight to Hell..complete and utter egomaniac. The pop stars thought it was great because the set was so anarchic, but I thought you needed discipline to make a film.”
A year later Cox phoned Burke and begged her to join him in Nicaragua for Walker, an allegory of American meddling in Central American affairs. It was the mid-Eighties and the country was riven by American-funded civil war. “I said, ‘I ain’t gonna go to Nicaragua with you. I’ll end up getting shot’,” she exclaims. “Then he took me to a Mexican restaurant and persuaded me to go. I’m glad he did. It was a fantastic experience – meeting 14-year-old kids prepared to go out and die for their country.”
Not only did Cox provide a steep learning curve, he offered her the chance to work with the then rising star Gary Oldman. Burke played a suburban punk in Cox’s Sid and Nancy , based on the story of the Sex Pistols and starring Oldman as Sid Vicious, their sweetly moronic bass-player. She had met Oldman before, when both were struggling actors performing Edward Bond’s Saved at the Palace Theatre in Westcliff-on-Sea in Essex. She was 19 and developed a crush on him. “I won’t deny that,” she says. “The minute I set eyes on him I thought, ‘this guy’s gonna be a megastar’.”
She was right, of course, though Oldman never forgot Burke and she was his first choice when he came to direct Nil by Mouth. It was also Oldman who phoned Burke at home in Islington with news of her Cannes award. He asked her to cancel the lunch she had arranged with Ray Winstone and to fly out immediately to the Cote D’Azur on the Lear jet provided by the film’s producer Luc Besson. On the day of the awards, Oldman took Burke’s hand as they walked up the red-carpeted steps to the ceremony, paparazzi flashbulbs twinkling around them and said, “who’d have thought it, eh, all them years ago in grotty Westcliff?”
The award brought trouble as well as adulation. Struggling to adjust to her new status, Burke was tugged in several directions. Immediately after Cannes she found herself making Dancing at Lughnasa (“Meryl Streep? She loved her Guinness”), promoting Nil by Mouth and reeling from “revelations” about her “squalid” past. “I was over-exposed and I felt frightened,” she says. “It made me think, ‘this is what Mai Zetterling warned me about’.” Now Burke wants to enjoy herself, which is why she played the over-sexed floozy in Gimme, Gimme, Gimme. Written by her old friend Jonathan Harvey, it offered a break from playing the bruised loser. “I wanted to have a laugh,” she says. “Doing serious films was great, but the heaviness can get to you.”
These days she is gently flexing the power that comes with her status as one of the country’s finest and best-loved actresses. Her very presence in This Year’s Love helped secure its funding and she is adapting Mr Thomas for the big screen. Despite success at Cannes, she is not interested in the logical next step, Hollywood. More pressing is the need to move house. Burke recently returned her Islington maisonette to the council rather than buy and sell it on at a huge profit. “Even mates who were ardent communists said I was mad for not selling it,” she says. “Yeah, it’s honourable, but what kind of world is it that sees that behaviour as unusual?”
Her neighbours will miss her, especially elderly, wheelchair-bound Betty who lives downstairs. “I said she can come and visit me now,” says Burke. “She was never able to come up the stairs to see me ‘cos of her wheelchair, now she can get in her little chair and whizz her way in.”
Burke is looking forward to her future. She says she’s happier than she has
been for a while, what people think and write no longer bothers her and she’s in control.”I am,” she says, “very content.”
By Gareth Grundy