The gay, the sad and the ugly

Kathy Burke says she knows her place when it comes to casting. And it's not among the beautiful people. By James Rampton
If you thought that Waynetta was a slob, Linda, the character Kathy Burke plays in a new BBC2 sitcom, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, is even more gross than the shell-suited, chain-smoking wife of Wayne she inhabits for Harry Enfield and Chums. Life for Linda and her gay flatmate Tom (James Dreyfus from The Thin Blue Line) is one long sex, drugs and rock'n'roll perma-bender. Done up in a ginger fright-wig and white-rimmed clown glasses, Linda gets so out of it her only way of knowing whether she ended the blinder by sleeping with someone is by sniffing her sheets the morning after.

Refined it is not. But that's the point. We're not talking Noel Coward popping in through the French windows with a tennis racquet in one hand and a flute of champagne in the other. With Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, playwright Jonathan Harvey's (Beautiful Thing) first venture into sitcoms, we're in the Bottom area. The mailroom at Points of View must already be laying on extra sacks to accommodate the piles of outraged letters.

For a start, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme contains what is Britain's first openly gay lead sitcom character. Tom may be a year behind America's Ellen, but he is much more in-your-face. "People are going `about bloody time'," says Burke. "It's not a question of `is he? isn't he?' - he's gay. There are references to `E' and poppers. Before he goes out, Tom routinely checks his condoms and the next morning he's paranoid because he was on drugs and can't remember what happened to them."

If that doesn't set the green ink flowing, then nothing ever will. Not that Burke is bothered by the prospect. "You can't please all of the people all of the time," she says. "Harry Enfield and Chums is very family-orientated, but Gimme, Gimme, Gimme isn't for mums and dads. This time I wanted to let rip a bit more. People will have a false sense of security because I've played adorable characters before. But when we were creating Linda, I said to Jonathan, `I want to out-dog Waynetta'. It went wrong with Waynetta because too many people liked her. And she had a man in her life. I wanted Linda to be more lonely, one of the real victims of society. She had to be mutton dressed as lamb, ugly and ginger - poor old gingers of the world, there's a lot of comic mileage in them. She's Chris Evans crossed with Olive from On the Buses." Help.

It is Linda's very vileness that makes her believable, according to Burke. "I don't want people to like Linda. There are horrible people in the world. If she was lovable, she'd have a harem of men. But she's on her own because she's nasty. She doesn't just look a mess; she is a mess. She's a case for The Rikki Lake Show." She adds the almost touching revelation: "If I hadn't become an actress, I could have ended up like that. I could see myself sitting there, showing me cellulite and shouting `he's gone off with my sister'."

Burke really doesn't mind playing gargoyles like Linda, Waynetta or the unfortunate, abused Martha in Mr Wroe's Virgins - in fact quite the opposite. "A part like Martha was scabs and all. I must be the only actress in history who has been asked to be naked for untitillating reasons. It was as if the producers thought `we want to make sure people don't get off on this - we'll get Kathy Burke'. Afterwards I thought, `I'm always cast as the ugly one', but they're better parts at the end of the day.

"I love playing grotesques, I relish it," she continues. "They're always three-dimensional parts. Without meaning to sound anti-men, ghastly women are the closest you get to a male role. It's very rare for women to be able to let go in that way. That's why Absolutely Fabulous went down so well. It was so refreshing to see those horrible drunk women."

Burke is commendably open about her greatest asset - a recognisable earthiness that is far removed from the never-never-land beauty myth. She is more suited to grittiness than glamour. (Which is why she was so perfectly cast as the battered wife in Gary Oldman's harrowing film, Nil By Mouth, and why the money men's original idea of Patsy Kensit in the role was so wildly off the mark).

Far from being wracked with anxiety about it, Burke is adamant that the way she looks "has helped me because directors know that vanity doesn't come into it. I'm happy to look as terrible as I can. Always being a couple of stone overweight has also been a strength. It means I tend to play people who are normal. I'm not a raving beauty. I've got quite a plain old face, but so have the majority of women.

"I'd be mortified if I thought I had to be the pretty one. When I was younger [she is now 34], I had to play a lot of girlfriends and I couldn't handle it. I once did a BBC Schools thing where I had to show a boyfriend some affection, and I ended up giving him a playful punch which nearly knocked him out."

Like last year's BBC2 sitcom Sunnyside Farm, the cartoonish Gimme, Gimme, Gimme takes a chainsaw to some politically correct sacred cows. "My character is thick and homophobic and racist," says Burke. "We didn't want anything precious or PC because it's so dull and it doesn't make good sitcom material. I wanted to make sure Linda and Tom were horrendous. They had to be the kind of grotesques that work well in British sitcoms."

A vein of sadness certainly runs through all the best Britcoms. "Look at The Fast Show. The characters everyone instantly thought were fantastic were Ted and Ralph - all that repression and things not being said. Maybe those sorts of comedy make us feel better about ourselves. Friends is well-constructed, but I find it hard to watch because I think their lives are great. They have fantastic apartments, and they all look amazing. The British are best at showing life's sad and lonely characters, people who have not lived the life they thought they were going to live. Take poor old Harold in Steptoe and Son. Every time he thought he'd met a woman, it was messed up by his father and by his sense of guilt about leaving him."

Burke's unluvvie-ish candour has not hindered her career. Producers - and, more importantly, audiences - seem to warm to her honesty. She has recently enjoyed success in movies such as Elizabeth and Dancing at Lughnasa, and has another, This Year's Love, coming out next month. She was even ferried to Cannes in Luc Besson's private jet to collect the Best Actress Award for her stunning performance in Nil By Mouth.

Despite all this, Burke remains the principal butt of her own gags. "Imagine if I started hanging out with Caprice - my mates wouldn't talk to me again," she says, before reflecting: "All the same, people bitch about her when her back's turned - `you can see her backbone'. But, hell, I'd love to see my backbone at some point."

`Gimme, Gimme, Gimme' begins on 8 January, BBC2