The Gem: Kathy Burke

Jolyon Webber talks to the actor about the roles that defined her and the one that has returned her to the silver screen

Kathy Burke was the source of much quotation in my household growing up, particularly in her role as Waynetta Slob in Harry Enfield’s Television Programme, a part she played from 1990 to 1998. When the Slobs – a caricature representation of lazy, feckless, (non) working-class Britain – decide to christen their baby Frogmella, the bemused vicar asks , “And who is the godfather?” To which the reply comes, “Marlon Brando!”. Any opportunity to use this quote was grabbed gleefully, ad nauseum.

Burke’s first major film role came in Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth, for which she won the best actress award at Cannes in 1997, putting her in the company of past recipients Bette Davis, Sophia Loren, Katherine Hepburn and Meryl Streep. And rightly so. Her performance as Val, the abused wife of Ray Winstone’s violent alcoholic, is astounding. One that, perversely, may have stymied a career in movies: “Nil By Mouth was a unique working experience. I think it’s an incredible film and, to be honest, I found it a hard act to follow. It’s an old gripe but female roles like Val are pretty rare”.

There were roles subsequent to that, smaller and infrequent, but over the years the desire to act faded and theatre directing became her main focus. Theatre’s gain has been cinema’s loss, though she was tempted back for 2011’s Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy to play Connie Sachs, a role she may yet reprise. “Connie is a beautifully rich character. She’s only in a couple of scenes but when I first read her I knew this woman had lived a life, all the layers were there. There’s talk that (director) Tomas Alfredson and the team are going to make Smiley’s People next year, fingers crossed Connie will make an appearance”.

Fingers crossed indeed. Any opportunity to see Kathy Burke act should, like the opportunity to quote her many great comic creations, be grabbed gleefully.

Words Jolyon Webber
Photograph Emma Harding

This interview appears in Port 9: The Film Issue