Written off as “thick” at school, she was a virgin until the age of 22, then indulged in a spell of promiscuity during eight years of heavy drinking. Her roles as slobs and victims have won her international acclaim, yet the actress Kathy Burke loves fine art and is firmly in control of her life – although the right man with whom to share it still eludes her.
Kathy Burke’s lament echoes the cri de coeur of her character, Linda, the lovelorn nympho in the ginger fright wig, shiny Eighties tights, heinous miniskirt and mouth like the Blackwall Tunnel from the surreal BBC2 comedy Gimme Gimme Gimme.
“I fall in love with the wrong men,” she moans. “My ideal man is Stephen Fry. And yes, I know it’s a no-go area but he’s so bright and so sussed. I fancy intellectual men. Jeremy Paxman, I’m mad for him. I love him doing University Challenge.”
All of this comes as a surprise when measured against the bawdy but desolate roles that Burke has made her own. She is unsurpassed when it comes to depicting women at their most needy. The ultra-realism of the alcoholic’s wife from a South London estate in the film Nil by Mouth won her the Best Actress award at Cannes in 1997. From the abuse victim in television’s Common as Muck to the Irish cleaner in 1999’s This Year’s Love (the morning-after line to a Lothario: “You’ve pulled a fat bird. I’ll get me coat” was her inspiration), she has portrayed the complexity of vulnerable women.
“I’m very good at playing vulnerable and being abused without being a total victim. I’ll make sure you feel more sorry for the abuser than the abused,” she says. Burke speaks with the authority of someone who has battled her way through life: mother dead from stomach cancer at 36, father an alcoholic for years, an education system that wrote her off as “thick”, most of her twenties spent drunk.
Pockets of her childhood were even darker than the version she will allow to be printed. With disarming trust she tells me a little of this, then begs me not to print it because she doesn’t want to hurt other people. This isn’t naivety; Burke doesn’t hide behind her fame and expects a reciprocal honesty.
Brought up in Islington, North London, where she still lives, Burke has an old-Labour, working-class type of morality. She turned down the chance to buy her council flat and make a quick profit. “If you’ve got money you shouldn’t be greedy. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself. I’d had the use of the flat for ten years at £50 a week. I’ve only been earning good money for five years but I could afford to pay the mortgage on the Victorian terraced house I wanted to buy.”
Like so many of the characters she plays, Burke is alone, although, she stresses, not lonely. Having children “has never been an issue”, she says. “I haven’t got a father for them and I would never go out with someone for the sake of it.” Nevertheless, at 35 she is ready for the kind of long-term relationship she has never had. “I want something more committed. I’m the only one among my mates who has never been with just one person.”
Where people have got her wrong, she says, is in thinking that she is as louche as Linda from Gimme Gimme Gimme or Fat Slags, in which she partnered Caroline Aherne, or her Waynetta Slob role in Harry Enfield’s show. “I’m quite prudish about sex and stuff. When I was older and drinking a lot I think people thought I was like that when I was a teenager, the type who is up for a shag in the alley. I really was not.
“I was seen as Bet Lynch but I was more Mavis Riley,” she says, referring to two former Coronation Street characters, the brassy barmaid and the retiring dormouse. “I didn’t lose my virginity until I was 22. There was more peer pressure from other girls than from fellows. I loved snogging but I was never into penetration. The actual act never appealed to me. I loved heavy petting. If I’d known that leaving them waiting was so powerful, I’d still be a virgin now. The thought of sex terrified me. I didn’t want to get that close to anyone. By the time I was around 20, I was very self-conscious about still being a virgin. I’d started acting and I seemed to be unique. I began to feel that virginity was a stigma that I had to get rid of.
“Then I met Caroline Quentin. She’s very sexy and flirty and all the guys adored her. We were both appearing in the play Saved at Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex. We were strolling to the theatre one day when she asked me when I’d lost my virginity. She was very open about sex and I was in awe of her. She was the last person I wanted to tell the truth to. But she just said ‘oh, right’. She wasn’t shocked. She said something brilliant: “You’re someone who won’t do something until you want to do it.”
“It was important that when I did lose my virginity, it was to someone I wasn’t in love with. When it happened, it was the right time and the right place and the best thing was that he didn’t know that I didn’t feel much for him. Six weeks later I made the mistake of telling him. I find it easier to cop off with someone if I’m not interested in them. If I feel romantic, I don’t want to jeopardise things.
“The men I’ve been out with have been lovely. I’m the one with the problem. I make sure that nothing can get started in the first place. I never wanted to be sexy, I just wanted to be everyone’s mate.
“I’m boyish because I was brought up by men. I’ve got a very male head a lot of the time and my humour can be very masculine. People think I swear all the time because I’ve got the kind of voice which sounds like that.”
Burke seems able to switch between the male and female sides of herself as adeptly as she does when acting. Today she looks not too far removed from Perry, sidekick of Harry Enfield’s teenager, Kevin. She is wearing a grey fleece Ted Baker boy’s top, trousers from an acting job and adidas trainers.
She puffs constantly at a cigarette and waiters at The Soho House, the trendy media club, bring a supply of bottled lager. But her eyes are huge and luminous and her voice a modulated, almost demure version of Linda’s glottal bellow.
Surprisingly, she says “I love being girly”, although she finds it hard to indulge in its communal aspects. When her 20 closest friends get together (she threw four parties during the first year in her house), “All the girls talk about where you can get your hair cut. I tut at them when they think they don’t look good enough. I can’t bear clothes shopping. I get special dresses made up for me.” These turn out to be in the style of a Fifties prom queen, with “tight tops and huge flouncy skirts”.
Burke is far slimmer than she appears on camera. “I was two stone overweight when I was younger. When Dad died I got really tiny because of all the nervous energy. I dropped to just under eight stone and people asked if I was taking drugs. The blokes really came out of the woodwork then. It was less to do with being thin, more that they recognised that suddenly I was vulnerable. I was like a little girl.
“I used to think my role in life was making other people feel brilliant. I could never take a compliment. When I was 27 and had given up drinking, I met an actress called Moya Brady while I was doing Mr Wroe’s Virgins. She met a different Kathy. She was the first person who ever said I was beautiful. She said ‘look at your eyes. You don’t realise how beautiful you are’. She changed my attitude to myself. I had hated myself to an excessive degree.”
Burke traces the roots of her insecurities back to her lack of parenting. “In my twenties I had no confidence about myself. Mothers are so good at telling their daughters that they’re brilliant and the best thing ever, but my mother wasn’t there to do that for me and my father didn’t bother.”
Burke was 18 months old when her mother, Bridie, died. “My first memory is of sitting in a high chair and wondering what was missing. She had become ill and died within the space of six weeks. A friend of the family saw her hanging out the washing, then she crumbled and was taken off to hospital. Her mother had been unmarried and she had been adopted by a couple in Cork. By all accounts she was a wonderful woman.”
Burke’s father, Paddy, was already a heavy drinker but the habit escalated out of control. Her brothers, John and Barry, were aged 11 and nine at the time of their mother’s death. For a while Burke was fostered by a family who lived in the flats opposite. “There were four other kids in the foster family and they always called me by my full name. It was ‘hello, Kathy Burke’,” she recalls fondly.
At the age of six she returned full-time to her father and brothers. “I had a lot of freedom at home because they couldn’t keep their eye on me. I was streetwise from an early age.” Brother John took over the running of the household. “No one told him to. He just made it his job. He darned the socks, did the cooking – boiled spuds and soup – then got on with his homework. He was strict and I had to go to bed when he said so.
“We all had our chores. Saturday was the day for the launderette, then we’d
get the sacks of coal and go to the supermarket. I saw John as more of the boss than my Dad. I didn’t pay any attention to him because he was always pissed and I just saw him as a joke. As a drunk, he was terrifying. He would shout and scream and smash the place up.
“I’d hear his footsteps and wonder what mood he was in. Sometimes he’d fall asleep in the front room. I got away with murder. I used to stick his hair down and draw a moustache with coal, so he looked like Hitler. He hallucinated in his sleep. He thought he could see things crawling on the walls.
“He was a binger. The saddest thing was that when he gave up the booze, I always thought he’d go back to it. He realised one day that his kids didn’t like him. He said ‘it’s killing me’. He was sweet, gentle and giggly when sober. The Ricky Tomlinson character in The Royle Family reminds me of him, getting disgruntled about what’s on the telly.”
They became close only after he became ill with the prostate cancer that killed him five years ago. “I had always been very cold with him. I gave him the time of day but it was done dutifully. It was a shame. We talked about it and he couldn’t understand why I had been like that. I don’t feel guilty. He was the parent. What could I do? I never saw him as a real father.”
Their understanding as he lay dying brings tears to her eyes as she recalls it. Now she says she can even understand his drinking. “He worked on building sites, mixing cement and bricklaying. It was hard graft. He was called a thick Irishman but he wasn’t thick at all. He was very bright and began reading when he gave up the drink. Near the end, he read Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, which he thought was a load of s***. I thought it was very sad that he thought that of the last book he ever read.”
He lived for a year after prostate cancer was diagnosed. By then it had spread to his liver. “He was in pain and terrified of dying on his own. He told me to tell him the moment nothing more could be done. When that time came, the consultant queried if I should tell. I said they were going to send him to a hospice.
“I saw a flash of sadness cross his face, then he thanked me. Dad said ‘I could go tonight, couldn’t I?’ The consultant said ‘no’. Dad winked at me and he did die that night before they could move him. I was holding his hand as he went. He’d found peace.”
Burke has had to come to terms with the fact that she may have inherited her father’s addiction to drink. By the time he died, she had given up alcohol for three years and now drinks socially. “I’m my father’s daughter. I was drunk every single day from the age of 19 to 27. I only ever drank beer but I drank to get drunk. I’d get aggressive, become a f****** monster. I never had hangovers but I couldn’t sleep at night.”
While she was drinking Burke went through a promiscuous phase. “The greatest number of men I was sleeping with at the same time was three. I was just having a laugh.”
Her new-found temperance allowed her to concentrate on her career, which took off like a rocket. A teacher at her convent school had recommended that she study drama and she went on to the Anna Scher school. Her earlier experience in education was unhappy. “I was down as the thicko at the back of the class. School seems unimportant now but I got upset a couple of years ago when I met a girl from school who’d bumped into our old biology teacher. The teacher had said: ‘I see that Kathy Burke is acting. She was a bloody nuisance at school and she still is now.’ I’m not into slagging off my teachers but she was a bitter old cow.”
Burke made it her job “not to box myself off into just drama or just comedy” but she predicted a degree of typecasting. It was a surprise when she was offered Mary Tudor in the film Elizabeth: “I thought I’d only play maids. I never thought I’d be a queen.”
She plans to spend the rest of January “chilling out at home. I don’t like to plan too far ahead”. People are surprised, she says, when they enter her home. “I pride myself on my taste. I can’t stand anything kitsch or Art Deco. My one extravagance is art. I go to private views and I love traditional oil portraits. “When I was younger I craved company but now I like to spend time alone. I can get quite moody and dark about things. But I do have some amazing friends.” Her two closest friends are the actresses Tilly Vosburgh and Elaine Lordan, who plays her sister in Gimme.
Her circle includes the Channel 4 Big Breakfast presenter Liza Tarbuck, whose thick blonde streaks Gimme Gimme Linda is now sporting in a tribute hairstyle. She is also “good mates” with Caroline Aherne. “We understand each other. She once told me she’d like to go out with a psychiatrist, someone who is really interested in other people’s minds.”
Burke’s friends put her man trouble down to “having standards that are too high”. She retorts: “And if that’s the case, why not? I think I’m a good catch. I’m nice. I’m loving. Men tend to like my company. I can’t get rid of them. They’ve tried to move in a couple of times. I’m a coward and just stop returning calls.”
Her one big love affair, at the time of her father’s death, was with a writer “but I didn’t handle it well”. She has never been out with an actor and finds pin-ups such as Brad Pitt execrable. “I find brains sexy,” she pronounces. “What I’d really like is a plumber who can read.”
By Moira Petty