Interview: Kathy Burke, comedian and actress
SHE’LL never write her autobiography, but talented actress Kathy Burke plays her teenage self – minus the horrible bits – in a new TV series
KATHY BURKE has a glint in her eye which suggests she has many a story to tell, but she won’t write her autobiography for love or money. “I’ve been asked,’’ says the 48-year-old, just in from a sneaky fag break. “I just feel we’re inundated with them, you know?’’
The born-and-bred Londoner pauses, then adds: “But I’m also such a lover of books, I so admire the writer, more than anyone else, that it just never appealed to me to write an autobiography.’’
If there was an appetite to find out more about the acclaimed actress, whose work ranges from the hilarious Harry Enfield and Chums to the heartbreaking Nil By Mouth, it was certainly whetted by her now-famous appearance on Desert Island Discs, where she chose songs by Lady Gaga and The Sex Pistols, spoke about how punk had made her life easier, and revealed her luxury item would be a life-sized laminated picture of James Caan from Dragons’ Den “to body surf on’’. Many listeners declared it to be the long-running series’ best edition ever.
Burke says: “I was shocked at the reaction. Pleasantly shocked, but I was sort of, ‘Crumbs, why’s it such a big deal?’ And I’ve heard much better Desert Island Discs than mine.’’
But she admits revisiting her past through music awoke something within her, so when Sky asked if she would write a series about her life as a teenager she jumped at the chance: “I thought, ‘Oh all right; well, this is my autobiography then’, and to me it’s just enough. I’m not going to write any more.”
The four-part Walking and Talking follows young “Kath” and her friend, Mary, walking around Burke’s home turf of Islington and talking, mainly, about music, school and boys.
“We just used to talk about everything and nothing,’’ recalls Burke. Mary, who gets all the male attention, is an amalgamation of many of Burke’s best schoolfriends, all of whom she says were “the pretty ones’’.
But Kath in the show only gets slightly huffy about this, not letting it get in the way of their friendship. “I wanted to show girls being kind to each other. I’m getting really fed up with the way that girls and women get portrayed a lot of the time.’’
On a roll, she adds: “It’s like everyone loving that film Bridesmaids, and I hated it. I thought, ‘Oh right, so we’ve got to invest in these women because that one’s bitchier than this one?’’’
Set to a soundtrack of The Clash and The Slits, with Grange Hill-style credits and comic turns from Burke herself and Sean Gallagher (who play a pair of nuns at Kath’s school), and Jerry Sadowitz (a local alcoholic), the series is as lively and funny as many of Burke’s previous works.
She beams at the feedback. “Brilliant,’’ she says. “I was worried it might come across as too indulgent, but it’s been one of the best work experiences, ever.’’
Burke was two years old when she lost her mother to cancer, and has no memory of her – she was brought up by family friends and her alcoholic father (although she’s said she regarded her older brother John as more of a father figure).
“Kath is what I was like,’’ Burke says, “like a sort of 40-year-old. But of course, what I don’t include is the horrible side of me. If I’d have shown her more at home, I would have had to have shown her like a typical, miserable, moody teenager.’’
Teen smoking has also been edited out. Though she refers to her Islington house as “the Big Smoke’’ (it’s the only place her friends can light up indoors), Burke isn’t a proud smoker, and didn’t want the two young actresses Ami Metcalf and Aimee-Ffion Edwards to start under her watch.
“And,’’ she adds, “audiences don’t need to be patronised by being shown in period things how much people smoked.’’
It’s clear from Walking and Talking Burke has always been a bit of a tomboy.
“I didn’t really feel like a girly girl,’’ she says. “I didn’t want to wear boob tubes and flared trousers and disco clothes. Then when punk came along it was like, ‘Oh great, I can wear ripped jeans and manky t-shirts and flat caps’. It was just perfect timing for me.’’
Also perfect timing was Burke’s acceptance into the Anna Scher theatre school in Angel, which is referred to in the show and, along with music, books and TV, gave Burke an escape from family life. “It just changed my life,’’ she says. “I felt like I’d come home. I hate that saying, but there’s no other apt phrase for it.’’
Burke stopped short of directing Walking and Talking. She also famously turned down the chance to direct Gavin and Stacey and, more recently, Simon Amstell’s Grandma’s House because, in her words, it was “too beautiful to ruin’’.
She admits she was put off by her experience directing Mat Horne and James Corden’s sketch show, Horne and Corden, which received a critical drubbing. On the whole, though, Burke is content with her career so far.
“And I am really proud of this. I’m really proud I’ve written two lovely parts for two young actresses, where they don’t have to take their clothes off, or smoke or do sex scenes, or anything like that.’’
Apart from her “old lady’s dream to be by the sea’’ eventually, she’s thoroughly enjoying growing old disgracefully: “What they say is true, you just sort of care less. I do what I wanna do and I see who I wanna see. And when you get into your forties, it’s like being a teenager again, really. Everyone else in their forties thinks they can chat to you. And everyone’s outside caffs smoking and talking.’’