After four near-death moments, Kathy Burke is returning to directing – and acting.
Kathy Burke keeps being mistaken for someone quite different. But it’s not a problem. In fact, she couldn’t be happier about it.
The director and actress, widely loved for playing such roles as Perry (from Kevin and Perry) and Waynetta Slob (catchphrase: “I am smokin’ a fag!”) alongside Harry Enfield, takes up the story. “People come up to me all the time and say, ‘All right, Perry? How’s Kevin?’ It could be annoying, but I’m actually really glad. I’m knocking on 50, and I’m still getting recognised for playing a 14-year-old boy. It makes me think I must still look great!” And with that, the air fills with the sound of Burke’s infectious laugh.
We are chatting in an upstairs office at the Hampstead Theatre, where she is directing her first play for four years, The Stock Da’wa by David Eldridge, and the 46-year-old’s engaging sense of humour is never far away. At one point, for instance, she explains that the play is “a three-hander. I do enjoy a three-hander.” A pause, before she realises the double entendre and bursts out laughing: “No, I don’t mean a ménage à trois!”
Dressed in an elegant green coat over smart grey trousers and a white T-shirt adorned with a pink image of Marc Bolan, she does indeed look great – she exudes the sort of life force that, if you plugged it into the mains, could power half of Hampstead. When Stephen Fry suggested an alternative to Room 101 called “Room Lovely”, the first thing he wished to put into it was Burke.
She is a person whose very name prompts a smile of affection in total strangers. People are drawn to her because she seems like an old friend, someone you might meet down the pub for a pie and a pint. She is devoid of airs and graces; this is a person very obviously at ease with herself. Many women in showbiz have a horror of hitting 40, but Burke is delighted about getting older.
“I don’t half love being in my forties!” she beams, tucking into a smoked-salmon bagel. “You feel more grown-up and can say ‘no’ to things without feeling you’re letting the whole team down. You don’t have to worry about pleasing other people all the time. You just feel more comfortable in yourself. I’m happy to be selfish now. That’s the beauty of getting older.”
For all that, Burke exhibits a rare honesty when she admits she has not always felt that life is sweet. The director, who has been in semi-retirement from acting for the past decade, gives an example of how she has changed for the better in recent years.
“Ten years ago, I’d have been hacked off if someone had come up when I was smoking and said to me, ‘You’re smokin’ a fag!’. I’d have said, ‘Oh, shut up!’ I would have been thinking, ‘Don’t you know I’m a serious actress?’ But now if someone clocks me smoking, I’ll actually go over to them and say, ‘I’m having a fag!’ It doesn’t disgruntle me. I’ve become friendly and mumsy. That shows how things change.”
Perhaps Burke’s perspective has been altered by the life-threatening condition she suffered in 2007, which was caused by a serious adrenal-gland illness and the superbug C difficile. Now fully recovered, she is in rude health. “I feel completely well now. I’d been so sick – I had four near-death moments. It exhausts you!” she says with a chuckle. “I was off work for 18 months, but I had a lot of help from very dear friends. And now I actually feel better than I did before I was ill.”
Burke has clearly got her mojo back as a director. At the rehearsals for The Stock Da’wa (which means “calling” in Arabic), she is relishing running the show. It is an intriguing play about Paul (Gary Shelford), an enigmatic young man who returns to the village of Stock. There, he is reunited with Mr Wilson (Robin Soans), his old English teacher, and Joan (Ann Mitchell), his unofficial foster mother, two friends he hasn’t seen for 20 years. However, the veneer of camaraderie cracks as past frictions between the trio soon bubble up.
The director was taken by the central conceit. “I really liked the idea of someone who’s not been around for 20 years suddenly deciding to come back and tell his two friends his truth. His truth is all very well, but what about the two others’ truth? I liken it to three people sitting on the same bus, but looking out of three different windows and recalling the view very differently.” Burke says she would run a mile if she were ever invited to a reunion. “I don’t enjoy going back. I’m very much a here and now person.”
Burke is quite at home in the director’s chair – she has previously helmed productions such as Smaller with Dawn French and Sam Shepard’s The God of Hell. According to Burke, “I used to get defensive when people asked me, ‘Is it the control that you like about directing?’ I used to say, ‘No!’ But now I’m older, I say, ‘Yeah, it absolutely is!’ I love the fact that I control who’s in the play and how I see it. But what I love more than anything else is that it’s a genuine collaboration. That gives me such a buzz.”
Burke’s recent work, however, has not been confined to directing. After years of disillusionment with acting – she grew tired of feeling she was “phoning in” her performances – she is making a tentative comeback in front of the cameras. She was recently persuaded to return to acting as Connie Sachs opposite Colin Firth, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch and a host of other stellar names in the big-screen version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, because she adored the director Tomas Alfredson’s previous work, Let the Right One In. It’s an enticing prospect. A mesmerising actress who won the Best Actress Award at the 1997 Cannes Festival for Nil by Mouth, Burke was once described by a newspaper as “a working-class Judi Dench”.
The other tag that Burke has more frequently been saddled with is “national treasure”. When I ask how she feels about that label, her eyebrows threaten to go into orbit. “All that’s a bit daft, isn’t it?” she says, with good-natured patience. “It’s strange, as people who know me say, ‘Oh, those people calling you a national treasure don’t know you very well, do they?’
“I imagine national treasures as people who at Christmas have a massive turkey and are surrounded by hundreds of kids. I’m the opposite. I love being on my own and don’t see anyone at Christmas. I shut down – I’m very self-sufficient. I was an individual kid and that stays with you. But I’m a very lucky person. God, if I ever feel lonely, all I have to do is pick up the phone.”
“To speak to one of your friends?” I ask.
“No, the Samaritans!”
Once more, the room is flooded with laughter, but our interview must now end, as Burke has to go outside. She is smokin’ a fag – and she doesn’t care who points it out.
‘The Stock Da’wa’ runs at the Hampstead Theatre (020 7722 9301) from April 14 to May 14.
By James Rampton. Original article.