‘I’ve got faith in my own talent’
Kathy Burke on stage and screen
Midday at a cafe in Finsbury Park, north London: the Harvey Weinstein story has just broken and, less widely reported, the revelation that Margaret Thatcher knew about Cyril Smith’s child sex abuse during her tenure as British prime minister, but had him knighted anyway. Kathy Burke, who came of age in the 1970s, is mulling over recent events – thoughtful seriousness cut through with bursts of laughter. What she has to say makes me think that when women complain that there aren’t any female role models, perhaps they’re looking in the wrong places: here she is.
“Growing up in the 70s,” she says, “if you were a girl or woman, a man could tell you what to do – if you were sitting on the bus: ‘Get up,’ ‘Move,’ whatever. You did what you were told.” But Burke’s doing-as-she-was-told phase didn’t last long. “I got some backbone and realised, no, I don’t need to be spoken to like this.”
The turning point came in her late teens, when a director asked her to feign masturbation in a play where she had been cast as a mentally ill patient in a psychiatric hospital who was being abused by one of the porters. “I was only 18. And I’m so proud when I look back because I just said no: ‘No it’s not in the script so, no, I’m not going to do it.’
“The thing with me is that I’m quite arrogant. I’ve got faith in my own talent and I always have. And if anyone turned around and said to me: ‘You’re never going to work again,’ I used to say ‘I will.’”
When she was in her teens, Burke took up acting, a delicate age to discover she was, allegedly, “unattractive”. “In fact, I didn’t realise I was ‘unattractive’ – in inverted commas – until I started acting. It was, ‘Oh no, you’re not right for the part – we’re looking for a pretty girl.’” It’s a crushing write-off for many young actresses; water off a duck’s back for the teenage Burke. “It’s true!” she grins, “I look at myself in the mirror and think I’m gorgeous. It’s other people that tell me I’ve got a face like a smacked arse.”
The worst thing that anyone has ever said to her is: “Don’t take this the wrong way but you look like Kathy Burke.” Burke finds this very funny. At 53, she is proud of her achievements. The cafe we are in belongs to the Park theatre, where she is in rehearsals for The Retreat, a three-hander she is directing. It’s by Sam Bain, who created the hit British TV comedy Peep Show with Jesse Armstrong. It is his first play, and Bain was anxious to find it the right home. Jonathan Harvey, who wrote the TV sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme for which Burke, playing Linda, wore a dog-eaten orange perm, talked filth and was twice nominated for a Bafta, suggested her. The Retreat is about a well-educated, successful man who has crashed and burned, finds Buddhism and checks himself into a spiritual retreat. “But then his elder brother, Tony, pays him a visit …” says Burke. Like the last thing she directed, Once a Catholic, in 2014, The Retreat is beautifully timed and very funny.
Mid-career, Burke, then well known for her comedy work on television, decided to try directing. It was a pivotal choice born out of advice she was given when she was 17. She grew up in Islington, north London, under difficult circumstances. Her two brothers and godmother were rocks, but her mother died when Burke was two; her father was on the scene only intermittently. A fluke, in the form of
‘I look in the mirror and think I’m gorgeous. Other people tell me I’ve got a face like a smacked arse’
a supply teacher, introduced her to acting, when he taught her class improv. Burke was 13. He suggested she train at the community-based Anna Scher theatre, around the corner. Scher has described Burke as “the kindest girl, a very spiritual person”, whose talent as a performer stood out.
That life-changing piece of advice came when the Swedish actor and director, Mai Zetterling, spotted her at a Scher performance and cast her in the film Scrubbers. “I was extremely lucky,” says Burke. “Mai Zetterling, she wouldn’t put up with anything. She grew up in Sweden and the Swedish film industry and didn’t like the way she was treated in Hollywood or here; with people like Peter Sellers and Danny Kaye – she didn’t enjoy the experience. She gave me great advice: ‘You need to be strong. You need to not just be an actress, you should write, you should direct, you need to get power and that’s the only way you’ll get power and some control in your career.’”
When Burke was 17, she says: “I didn’t mind being the clown in the corner, but within just a couple of years I was beginning to understand what she meant.” Except for the government-sponsored antiheroin television campaign in which Burke was the drug addict, “I was always playing the same character which was Fat Friend of The Lead.” She laughs.
If you look at how frequently her career trajectory pivots in unexpected directions, you realise how Zetterling influenced its path. In 1988 Burke started playing bit parts in French and Saunders. Four years later she began working with Harry Enfield, and Waynetta Slob was born. By the mid-90s she had a go at writing and directing then, suddenly, in 1997, she caught everyone by surprise as the female lead, a woman abused by her husband, in Gary Oldman’s directorial debut, Nil by Mouth, winning best actress at Cannes.
In 1998 she was Mary I in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth, which won a Bafta for best film. Then in 2011 Burke rematerialised as an MI5 researcher, Connie Sachs, in the John Le Carré adaptation, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – that film went on to be nominated for three Oscars, as well as winning two Baftas and more than 20 other awards.
Before directing, Burke had been frustrated by all the sitting and waiting to get parts, “So I thought, ‘This is a load of bollocks’, and I started working backstage and doing script reading. Doing assistant directing. Just wanting to learn. And it did change people’s minds. It was just a way of showing I’ve got a brain in my head: yes, I’m very good at playing the fat, stupid one in the corner, but that isn’t because I am the fat, stupid one in the corner.”
What does power mean to Burke? “As a director you choose your team.” For example, in Once a Catholic, she says: “There were four very young girls in that. I could choose who played the male characters. I didn’t want anyone perving over the girls. That’s very important to me.”
It’s illogical that the transition from comedy to straight acting is still considered a step up when the evidence shows that attempts by “serious actors” to do comedy end in an awkward no man’s land. But it’s because of this prejudice that some people didn’t know what to make of Burke, a woman getting loads of work but who didn’t wear makeup, crave red carpets or like champagne (she only drinks vodka); an actor from a working-class background, coming to prominence in the era of Merchant Ivory. Unfortunately for Helena Bonham Carter, this was also when Burke found her voice.
The year was 1996 and Bonham Carter complained on record that people didn’t take her seriously because she was pretty and middle class. “At that time it was only actresses like Helena that were getting interviewed: people thought all actors or actresses thought the way they did,” Burke says. “Helena was doing a lot of work – and I think that’s where my umbrage came from. So I just wrote a letter to [London listings magazine] Time Out, that’s the only way I could think to express what I felt.”
The letter, which was printed, said: “As a lifelong member of the non-pretty working classes, I would like to say to Helena Bonham Carter (wholly pledged member of the very pretty upper-middle classes): shut up you stupid cunt.” “It was meant to be funny. It wasn’t aggressive, even though I used the word cunt,” says Burke innocently. Working-class actors loved it: “They were, like, ‘At last!’ The posh actors were a bit, ‘Helena’s my friend.’ Well, you should be a better friend to Helena and tell her to stop being so fucking stupid. Yeah, it needed to be said and I was the person that said it.”
Has Burke also been at the receiving end of sexual harassment? “Ha ha ha!” she cackles. “You’re so sweet to ask – No! Listen, I’m not … I was never the sort of girl that those sorts of men were interested in. I’m not conventionally pretty and I’m also quite coarse and I’ve also got a very big mouth, and if anyone had tried that with me I would have probably headbutted them and reported them to the police.
“It’s in every industry, not just ours. Look at Cyril Smith – and Thatcher let him get away with it. I find that more scary, particularly because she was a woman. She just didn’t give a fuck about the working classes.” It’s a big deal, she says, that “things like this are being exposed. This is why I like things like social media because everybody has a voice.”
Has she ever headbutted anyone? “I have punched one person, but it wasn’t to do with that. They were just getting on my nerves.”
She’s single, has many close friends, chose not to have kids and “keep myself to myself”, still in Islington. Ten years ago she contracted a bacterial infection during an operation. “So that really changed my life in the way I am, my health. I’ve got Addison’s disease now. The bug killed my adrenal glands so I nearly died about four times. I’m overweight because of the steroids and that can sort of get me down a bit, but there’s only so much I can do. I’m vegetarian, I walk everywhere and it just doesn’t shift. I’ve just had to accept it. I could stop eating bread, but life’s too short.” (Ditto cigarettes.)
The thing she really likes about herself, she says, “is that I’m now an older woman who really likes young women. All my young female friends are starting to have babies, so that’s great.” Years ago, she adds: “I definitely got moody-broody at some point, but not enough to go ahead and have a child.”
She has made the choice to remain single. “I don’t get involved with men in that way any more. It was a decision,” she says. “The last relationship I had was quite a while ago and then I just thought: ‘Fuck this for a game of soldiers.’ I’ve been lucky. The blokes that I’ve been with have been really decent people, apart from one in 1993 – that was a long time ago, but some people can have an effect; if you hear their name it can make you feel a bit … weird.” She’s fallen in love since, but, “a very long time ago and I’ve not really had those feelings again. So I’ve had some shags – you can get laid whenever you want but … I love being in love even though it’s quite disruptive and I’ve just really not felt that way again. Of course, people fall in love when they’re older, but I’ve come to accept that, OK, that was it and it didn’t work out. So it’s a shame, but my life didn’t stop.”
She’s clearly happy, very settled and very good at her job(s). Straight after The Retreat she is directing Lady Windermere’s Fan at London’s Vaudeville theatre, with more projects next year – but they’re top secret. “It’s quite a high when things work, but also I take it to heart if a play hasn’t gone well. I do feel it’s my responsibility, so that can make me feel a bit shit. I did a Sam Shepard play a few years ago and, Jesus, they fucking hated it.”
Didn’t those vicious reviews bump her confidence – just a little bit? “I sort of love all the plays I’ve directed,” she says, smiling broadly. “[When things have gone pear shaped] I just ignore it. I never got frightened. I just thought, no: I’ve always had faith in my own talent. I always knew I would work. I’ve always stood up for myself.” The Retreat is at the Park Theatre, London, to 2 Dec