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Kathy goes a stage beyond

The Evening Standard

If I had been around 100 years ago, I would have been a male impersonator in the music halls, says Kathy Burke. Instead, the 21st century’s answer to Vesta Tilley has strutted her trousered stuff as the smaller, but stroppier, half of that wonderfully dopey duo Kevin and Perry for the delectation of the telly-watching nation.

“It’s a great liberation for a woman to play a man’s role: I’ve been asked to play a couple of blokes on telly since Perry, and I was quite flattered, really. I said no because physically it’s quite painful, know what I mean?” she adds, miming an excruciating clamp-down in the chest area. “But I wouldn’t mind doing a love scene with Julie Walters because she’s so brilliant; I would be the geezer, then we could swap over.”

Quite apart from the sell-out potential of a snogathon between those two national treasures Burke and Walters, it would be tragic if this multiple-award-winner gave up full-time acting, as she’s currently threatening.

But destiny beckons, for there’s more to Burke than a genius for playing pinched-faced waifs and right old slappers. When her mentor Mai Zetterling discovered the 17-year-old Islingtonian back in 1982 and directed her in Scrubbers, she advised Burke not to get trapped for ever in the comedy roles but to write and direct as well. Kathy had inherited the gift of the gab – “my language would shock a docker, my brother John is always tutting at me” – from her Irish labourer father, who died of cancer in 1994.

He got off on the dialogue and said to me, ‘This is the first thing I’ve seen that reads like I talk.’ “

By the age of 22, she had already written her first play, Mr Thomas, which she directed four years later at the Old Red Lion with Ray Winstone in the title role of a closet homosexual. Winstone was in the bit-part wilderness at the time and Burke had been out of work for nine months – the only blip in a consistently successful 19-year career that even weathered a booze problem in her twenties. “Mr Thomas was Ray’s first gay part, but it didn’t bother him – not in the slightest.

He got off on the dialogue and said to me, ‘This is the first thing I’ve seen that reads like I talk.’ “

Gay themes continue for what she regards as her first “proper” directing job, a step up from pub-theatre productions, with Jonathan Harvey’s latest play, Out in the Open, at Hampstead.

“I have to face up to the fact that I enjoy directing more than acting,” she admits. “I love getting good companies, kindred spirits, together. I would like to let the directing take over, though I don’t think I’ll completely give up on the acting. I’d love to work with Harry [Enfield] and Paul [Whitehouse] in future, but I was getting bored with the characters in the sketch shows.”

The kindred spirit in this case is Harvey, her soulmate ever since she directed his play Boom Bang-a-Bang at the Bush seven years ago. Harvey wrote the fag-hag role of fright-wigged Linda in his odd-couple sitcom, Gimme Gimme Gimme, specifically for Burke, who begins filming a third series of the show for BBC2 this June.

“I love him; he tolerates me. If Jonathan weren’t gay, I’d probably be crying all the time from unrequited love. He’s so funny; I love that, it’s very sexy. And even our birthdays are on the same day: 13 June. We’re both Geminis. When Jonathan was deciding who should direct Boom Bang-a-Bang, he read his horoscope in the Standard and it said ‘Go for the outside choice’. So he went for me; that’s the cute little camp story about how we got together.”

Although I like male impersonation, I’m not gay. If I was, I’d be telling everyone about it

In order to get into the groove for Out in the Open, she recently took the cast of six for “a works beano” to the Camden Town gay pub The Black Cap. “Quite a few lesbians were coming up to me. Although I like male impersonation, I’m not gay. If I was, I’d be telling everyone about it,” she says amiably in her matter-of-fact, no-big-deal way.

At 36 (“I’m well into moisturisers now; I avoided them for years but now I slap it on”), she remains single but says, with a secretive smile, that she’s “very happy” with someone she won’t name. So no chance of a look-in, then, for the telly-addicted vicar and professor who both sent her proposals of marriage.

They’re not the only admirers. Later this year she’s going to the States for a mutual-adoration meet with the director Todd Solondz, of Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse fame, who specialises in the kind of quirky, dysfunctional characters (“fat, gormlesslooking women; playing glamorous roles is so boring”) that interest her. There are also long-term plans for Burke to film Mr Thomas. “I want it to be perfect, so I’m taking my time, but Ray keeps bugging me about it because he thinks he’s going to be too old to play him by the time I get around to doing it.”

Meanwhile her latest film, Tony Grounds’s The Martins (originally called Toss-pots), goes on release in the next couple of months. “Lee Evans and I do a lot of snogging in it; that was very pleasant. I’ve been lucky with my snog-ups: Phil Daniels, Ian Hart and a big grip-up in bed with Dougray Scott as well as a knee-trembler with Neil Dudgeon in Common As Muck.” If Julie Walters plays her cards right, she could find herself in some very good company.

Ray Winstone gave Kathy the nickname Rita the Rottweiler “because I don’t like anyone talking to me before I’ve had a cup of tea and a fag in the morning”

Considering all the condescending rags-to-riches press Burke has had as the council-flat dweller who dared to win the Best Actress award at Cannes for Nil By Mouth, she’s remarkably easy-going and unneurotic for an actor.

“I’m too laid-back to be nakedly aggressive, although Ray Winstone nicknamed me Rita the Rottweiler because I don’t like anyone talking to me before I’ve had a cup of tea and a fag in the morning.” She sneaks a look at her packet of Silk Cut – ideas on a postcard, please, about how to kick the habit – and says: “Newspapers always write that I’m chain-smoking. Say that I smell of roses.”

Reeking of attar of roses, my dear. They’ll probably name one after you some day.

By Maureen Paton. Original story.