She’s currently in the news for taking down a “small fry” thief who tried to rob her at an ATM.
Had the robber read this classic Kathy Burke interview from Loaded in October 1997, he probably would have thought twice about approaching her.
While it’s not known if Burke told him she was “Considerably-Richer-Than-Yeow”, she did tweet: “FUCK YOU SMALL FRY – MY GENIUS IS STREET WISDOM”, after fending off the attack.
It’s typical of Burke’s magnificent ability to give zero fucks for anything life throws at her. A recent convert to social media, her Twitter is one of the very best there is.
Back in 1997, Burke was just as refreshingly mouthy and honest while recovering from her Best Actress victory at Cannes and in the middle of a hilarious battle of the classes with a snooty Helena Bonham Carter.
Here’s her brilliant musings, reprinted in full.
Interview by Jon Wilde, October 1997
She pauses for a moment, takes a quick slurp of PG Tips, a quick drag of her umpteenth fag, and laughs the loudest, loveliest, dirtiest laugh you’ve ever heard in your life. Kathy Burke’s just been informed by her interviewer that he fancies the arse off her. And she doesn’t mind one little bit. Not a jot.
“I don’t mind at all mate. I love it. Fucking love it. Let’s face it, we all love being fancied, don’t we? Years ago, I never heard compliments like that. I’d hear people saying, ‘Oh, you’re a funny girl you are.’ Stuff like that. Now, it’s like, ‘I really fancy you.” Not that I get chatted up very much. Wish I fucking did. But I’ve noticed that I’ve been getting a bit more attention from blokes lately. That’s probably ‘cos I’ve got a bit more confident. And it’s a sexy thing, isn’t it, confidence?”
If she was any more confident right now, she’d surely ignite and burst into flames. Not that she’s short of reasons for feeling so chipper. Fifteen years after copping her Equity card, during which time she turned in more pigging great performances than you could comfortably reckon up, Kathy Burke is finally getting the recognition she so richly deserves. Her priceless contributions to Harry Enfield & Chums started as a cult, gathered furious momentum and set her up as one of the best-loved and most instantly recognisable faces on the telly.
Numerous star turns (in everything from cinema’s Scrubbers and TV’s Mr Wroe’s Virgins to theatreland’s Amongst Barbarians) has singled her out as a talent of the decidedly one-off variety. What was needed though, not to mention fully deserved, was another kind of recognition. Something that would apply the rubber stamp and confirm to the world what we’d all known for a good while – that Kathy Burke was , as Gary Oldman recently put it, “the absolute bollocks.” And, sure enough that recognition arrived.
“Getting the award at Cannes and all that was a great buzz. A great excuse for a piss-up and all the rest of it”
In May, at the 50th Cannes Festival. She waltzed off with the top award, Best Actress, for her awesome performance in the film Nil By Mouth, in which she plays the brave, long-suffering wife of a South London would-be Mr Big Shit (played by the irrepressible Ray Winstone). Caught up in a hedonistic spiral of drink, drugs and all manner of loose living, the Winstone character loses control by degrees until finally, it all gets violently out of hand, with Burke’s Val character finding herself on the receiving end.
It’s a film that has you under the cosh from the very start and never lets up for a moment. At once frantically funny and harrowingly intense, it’s the kind of movie that will have you ringing up strangers and imploring them to dash off to the local multiplex for a butcher’s. No kidding. A masterpiece, no less.
“I’m proud,” says Kathy. “I’m just so fucking proud of this film. Getting the award at Cannes and all that was a great buzz. A great excuse for a piss-up and all the rest of it. But it could never top the buzz when I first saw the film. After the screening, I couldn’t sleep for 48 hours. I just knew it was the best thing I’ve ever been in. Know what I mean?”
The Sunday after she picked up the Cannes award, her good mate Harry Enfield wrote a piece in one of the qualities in which he reasoned that, if Helena Bonham Carter or Emma Thompson had won the award, we would have said, “Good old Britain.” But Kathy won it. “And we say, ‘Oh brilliant! We love that girl.’”
Which of course, we do. We love that girl for a whole raft of reasons. One of which is that she isn’t Helena Bonham Carter or Emma Thompson. She’s Kathy Burke and she’s the bollocks. Top woman. Honorary bloke. Not only funny as fuck, but so much more. In short, 100 per cent proof gorgeous.
“I do think of myself as gorgeous,” says Kathy Burke. “Very much so. I put that down to the blokes in my life. Friends. People I’ve worked with. Like the men in this film – Gary Oldman and Ray Winstone. I’d be doing scenes where I looked really rough, a proper state. But I was never made to feel that way. Even when I had to prepare for violent scenes and had all this heavy-duty make-up on, these lads wouldn’t allow me to feel ugly. I would sit on the set and feel beautiful and people like Ray Winstone would come up and say, ‘You’re bloody fantastic, Kathy. You’ve got a bit of a weird looking face. In fact, you remind me of my nan. But, y’know, you’re fucking gorgeous!’ And I’ll be thinking, ‘Yeah, he’s right…’”
Not that self-confidence always came to her so readily. Growing up as she did in the rough end of Islington, times were tough and virtually everything seemed to conspire against her feeling good about herself. Her mother having died when she was just 18 months old, she would be looked after by her two older brothers while her alcoholic father disappeared on lengthy binges.
“I think the reason I adore men so much,” she sayd, “is because I was brought up by them. What my brothers did for me was just incredible. I suppose that gave me high expectation of men. They haven’t always lived up to those expectations. Some have. Some haven’t. But, what I’ve learned over the years is that a good man can make you feel like the most beautiful woman in the world. So, when you come across a really good man, that’s a real joy.
“I wanted them to fancy me. I wanted them to want to fuck me”
“But when I was growing up, it didn’t take me long to work out that the blokes I knew looked upon me as one of their mates. They didn’t fancy me. They didn’t want to get me into bed. I was Burkey, the little fella in a skirt. Even when I started getting into relationships, I didn’t believe deep down that they really fancied me. It wasn’t enough that they loved me. I wanted them to fancy me. I wanted them to want to fuck me. But, even then, I always had a sense of fun about myself. A much as it bothered me, I could be tongue-in-cheek about it. I’m just a funny girl, basically. Always have been.”
It was while watching the film Kes for the first time, in her early teens, that it first occurred to her that life might just offer an alternative route to leaving school and working in the local bakery.
“It really opened my eyes, that film,” she recalls.
“When I saw Kes, I didn’t feel like an outcast any more. Also, I’d be watching the film and I’d see that these people weren’t real actors. They were just normal people who happened to be in a film. They all looked like the people who lived in my flats. I’d never seen that before. It must have had an effect on me ‘cos I started acting out scenes in my flat.
“Like I’d go looking for injured birds with the idea of bringing them back home and making them well again – like the boy does in the film. But I couldn’t find any birds. So I got a cat instead. Nobby, I called him. He was fucking mad though.”
At 15, an English teacher suggested she attend classes at the local Anna Scher theatre school, which ran special cheap (50p) evenings for the working-class kids in the neighbourhood. This led to a few years playing “the fat friend of the leading girl” for BBC Schools TV and the like.
“I suppose there came a point when I thought ‘Well, this is what I’m stuck with’. Either fat friends or cleaning ladies. Then, a bit later, it was haggard-looking prisoners and the mentally ill.”
“Before the acting took off, she endured a stint at the local bakery. For a brief period, while studying drama at college, she worked as a music journalist on the student rag. In her final review, she happily announced that Bob Marley had recovered from cancer and was now in tip-top health. By the time the piece was published, Marley had snuffed it. And that was the end of that.
Then in 1982, she landed her first plum film part – starring as a borstal inmate in Mai Zetterling’s Scrubbers; quickly followed by the role of Johnny Rotten’s moll in Sid & Nancy, and a substantial role in Alex Cox’s ill-fated ‘ravioli’ Western Straight To Hell. Mention of which brings drunken memories flooding back.
“Oh yeah, Straight To Hell. Crap film. Just the pits. Even as I was reading the script, I was thinking, ‘This is fucking appauling’. But how could I turn down the chance of partying with The Pogues, Joe Strummer and Elvis Costello? That was some party I can tell you. A hoot. A blast. The beginning of me drinking far too heavily if the truth be told.”
By the end of the ‘80s, she was probably best known for her comic roles. There was the pregnant, dart-throwing Tina Bishop character, who was an instant cult hit when she became a regular on Jonathan Ross’s The Last Resort. Numerous guest appearances on French & Saunders, including a hugely memorable skit in which she starred as Bananarama’s newest recruit. And, perhaps best of all, her rip-snorting cameo in Roland Rivron’s Set Of Six series, in which, playing Rivron’s down-and-out partner, she swigged from a bottle of cider and warbled a medley of Freddie & The Dreamers songs.
Come 1989 and she found herself at a curious crossroads in her career. Offered the chance of joining French & Saunders on tour, she opted instead to head off to a regional theatre to perform as the sister of a drug trafficker in a production of Michael Wall’s Amongst Barbarians.
“It’s not like working down a coal mine, is it? The only time I get really stressed out on jobs is when the people I’m working with are complete cunts”
“That was an important decision for me. ‘Cos it would have been dead easy for me to head off down the comedy road. But I had to remind myself that I was an actress. Most of the time it’s a piece of piss, I mean, it’s not like working down a coal mine, is it? The only time I get really stressed out on jobs is when the people I’m working with are complete cunts.”
Through the ’90, she’s popped up all over the shop, bringing her distinctive raw energies to bear on a startlingly diverse array of TV stuff. There was Harry Enfield & Chums, of course, as well as Murder Most Horrid, After Miss Julie, Common As Muck and even bloody Jackanory.
Then there was her truly remarkable BAFTA-winning performance in Mr Wroe’s Virgins – which found her getting her kit off on screen for the first time.
“Bit weird that,” she says. “Doing nude scenes, because it goes out on the telly. Then, next morning, you’re doing your shopping at Safeway, you see someone’s recognised you and you realise they were looking at your fanny the previous night, which can be a bit…”
“Yeah, disconcerting. Not that there was anything titillating about my nude scenes in that play. I mean, I was covered in scabs and all that. Nothing you could have a crafty wank over. It’s just that it’s usually the actresses with fit bodies who get asked to do the nude scenes. But it honestly doesn’t bother me. I look at my arse in the mirror and quite like it. Which is important, I think. To feel good about your body.
“See, I’m heterosexual and everything, but I can appreciate a beautiful woman as much as a block can. I can understand why they get all weak at the knees when they see a lovely pair of tits.
“The way I see it…you can have this bird who’s got the best knockers in the world, the best arse and all that business, but she could be thick as shit and a right old bitch to boot.
“Of course, there’s men who will put up with that because men are peacocks, basically. They want to walk down the road with something good on their arm. They want to strut and show off a bit. I can understand that. Fucking good luck to them, I say.”
Right now, Post-Cannes, she finds herself up to her eyebrows in work offers which show no sign of letting up. Meanwhile, she’s just completed filming an adaptation of t he novel Tom Jones for the BBC. Her latest writing project, a 10-minute TV play entitled The End, is due to start filming this month. Then, around the same time. She starts filming a movie about the life of Elizabeth I, in which she plays Mary Tudor. “My first posh part,” she admits, somewhat bashfully.
Not that there’s much chance of her traipsing off to regularly into swanky Merchant Ivory territory. Indeed, the chances of her mixing in those particular circles would appear to be remote after her recent spat with Helena Bonham Carter. This highly entertaining saga began when Carter was quoted in Time Out magazine as saying: “If you’re not pretty and you’re working class, you have an easier time in terms of people’s attitudes to you.”
“They like the dirtiness of being with a bit of rough, but they wouldn’t want to breed with me. Which is fine ‘cos I wouldn’t want to breed with them”
Clearly, this sort of hogwash didn’t go down at all well with our Kathy, who responded thus: “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 upper-middle classes: shut up you stupid cunt…”
Reminded of which episode, she grins a grin as large as a shopping precinct.
“Well,” she says, “I thought it was something that needed to be said. Helena Bonham Carter’s gripe was that she was stereotyped but the way she put her point across was just fucking ignorant. I just felt she had to be pulled up about it. Not that I was waving the flag for the working class or anything like that. I have never had a working class chip and I’m proud of that. It’s not that I’ve got a problem with posh people. In fact, I’ve been out with a few posh boys in my time. They are a bit weird with women like me. They like the dirtiness of being with a bit of rough, but they wouldn’t want to breed with me. Which is fine ‘cos I wouldn’t want to breed with them. I don’t give a damn to be honest with you. I mean, I know what I am, I know who I am and where I’m from. I’m not Pamela Anderson. I’m Kathy fucking Burke. And, if people don’t like it, they can just fuck off. Know what I mean?”
We do. We certainly do.
Gorgeous.Totally, utterly, fantabulously gorgeous. That’s how it is. That’s all there is and there ain’t no more.
Jon Wilde profiled Kathy Burke and Damon Albarn for Loaded in the 90s. He now works in New York as articles editor for GQ.