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

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea