On the front door of Kathy Burke’s house, there is a sticker of a slavering bull terrier. Perhaps for fear that this should give too menacing an impression, there are a couple of stickers of guinea-pigs as well. Inside the airy Islington council maisonette, a sly glance at the bookshelves of the best British character actress of her generation reveals – among other impressive tomes – Charles Bukowski’s Post Office, a slang thesaurus and Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. In brazen contravention of the international actor’s bookshelf charter, these have the look of having been read.
If I was a star of stage and screen, currently directing the acclaimed Bush theatre production of ascending gay playwright Jonathan Harvey’s Boom Bang-a-Bang, I might think twice about allowing marauding journalists to snoop around my personal space. Kathy Burke does not seem in the least bothered. When you’re used to seeing someone famous on TV, their small- screen persona is often an expanded version of what you get in real life. With Burke it’s the other way round. The Hogarthian relish of her characterisations is more than matched by the impact of her affability and the earthy snap of her speech. She is delighted to discover that the photographs are going to be done another day because, this being the afternoon after the night before, she “looks like shit”.
Having drawn her first breath in the old Royal Free Hospital on Liverpool Road, London N1, Burke is Islington-born and -bred. That’s old-school, wrong-side-of-the-tracks Islington rather than new-fangled Blairite fleshpot. She’s lived all her life within the same half-mile radius and now has a dilemma about whether or not to buy her house. Her Dad – an Irishman and a “good Labour man” who worked for the council, and with whom she lived well into her mid-twenties – died last year, but her two elder brothers, John and Barry, still live nearby. “I feel very safe living here,” Burke admits. “I can smell trouble miles away. The only weird thing about it is I don’t really feel like I’ve moved on. A lot of mates who’ve come here from Manchester or wherever, they’ve really left home, all I’ve done is move round the corner.”
She used to travel to school though, to a convent comprehensive in Euston. “Because I didn’t have a Mum – she died when I was a baby – my Dad was told by people in authority that it was best for me to go to a convent school.” Burke is not so sure. Having been “brought up by blokes”, the switch to an all-female environment was a disorienting one, especially for a girl with pronounced tomboy tendencies. “I had this laddish way about me, with my deep voice and telling jokes all the time; I was Burkey, the little fella in a skirt.”
Thanks to an English teacher giving drama tuition, she did get something out of school. “The lesson would always end with me and him doing a sort of Dick Emery improvisation as a treat for the rest of the class. I used to be really daring.”
By this time, Kathy Burke was aware of kids she knew from Islington being on TV, but had no idea of how they got there. “I remember watching a guy called Ray Burdiss who went to our primary school on TV, and I just couldn’t get my head round it.” Still thinking of acting primarily as a hobby, she enrolled for weekly classes at Islington’s Anna Scher Theatre. She also did drama at a further education college. Unprecedentedly flush thanks to a pounds 1,000 grant, newly initiated into the pleasures of the pub, and never one to be pigeonholed, her grade was Unclassified.
Burke’s ambition at this point was to launch herself into the murky waters of music journalism. This dream ran aground on the rocks of the student union magazine. “I’d read somewhere that Bob Marley was getting better, so I wrote, `All you reggae fans will be pleased to know that Bob Marley is now fit and well’, but by the time it came out, he’d died.” She ran the gamut of Two-Tone/ mod-revival era youth cults. “I was a very lame skinhead,” she confesses. “I had to be in by 8.30pm, so I used to pretend that I had a baby sister I had to go home and baby-sit.” She opted to grow her hair and switched to wearing “terribly sad” jumpers after a couple of British Movement skins kicked her in the spine for spurning a racist pamphlet.
It was about this time that Burke got her big break. The director Mai Zetterling came to Anna Scher scouting for Scrubbers – the missing link between Scum and Prisoner: Cell Block H – and got her an Equity card. “From then on that was my job; I was an actress.” She stopped spending all her money on records and bought the complete works of Shakespeare. On TV it was mainly “second girl in pub” roles, but she got better parts in the theatre.
Burke’s sense of timing and eye for the grotesque brought her to the attention of London’s emerging comedy mafia – asked to create a character for Roland Rivron’s Raw Sex troupe, she came up with the immortal darts-fixated super-slattern Tina Bishop. Tina not only made a big live TV splash on Jonathan Ross’s Last Resort, but also won an unlikely admirer – the Royal bedroom intruder Michael Fagan. He turned up to see her at a pub once, shouting: “I love you Tina, you’re the woman I’d been waiting for”. A pre-Bob Mortimer Vic Reeves even asked Kathy to be his comedy wife, but she doesn’t seem to mind that nothing came of it.
For all her subsequent comic coups – as media empress Magda in Absolutely Fabulous, in numerous eye-catching support roles for French and Saunders, and above all as sex-crazed adolescent Perry (her own creation: “He was based on this lad I knew called Perry”) and iconic bad mother Waynetta Slob on Harry Enfield’s Television Programme – Kathy Burke has been wary of going too far down “that comedy road”.
“I never wanted to be one of that lot who started out doing cabaret,” she maintains. “I like it to be known that I was always an actress.” Burke finds it “excruciatingly embarrassing” to repeat a gag, and is trying to convince Harry Enfield to kill off the Slobs. She strives to keep a balance of comic and serious roles, and won a Bafta award in 1993 for her performance as Martha, the abused barn-dweller, in Channel 4’s Mr Wroe’s Virgins. Refusing to be typecast in the barn-dwelling category, “though I do love it when I’ve got to get mucky”, these days, she’s now getting to play “normal women – women that are quite sexy and stuff”. “I really like it; putting on the heels and a bit of slap and being some hard-nut woman talking with her tits.”
She’ll soon be doing this in a short film written and directed by Naked star David Thewlis. Meanwhile her own writing career, which got off to an impressive start five years ago with her award-winning play Mr Thomas, will have to wait. Her father, more or less on his death-bed, told her to write more: “But he also told me to give up the fags,” she grins, puffing emphatically.
At this point in the conversation, a feline presence makes itself felt. A scabrous dark grey tom called George glides into Kathy Burke’s front room, his rogueish eye off-set by a pink glitter collar. Much to the distress of all decent cat-lovers in the neighbourhood, his owner can’t quite bring herself to get him castrated. Are there any more where he came from? “I’ve only got one. Who do you think I am, Beryl Reid?”
By Ben Thompson. Original article.