Kathy Burke - From Waynetta to director

She's given up acting – much to the delight of Britain's hottest comedy duo. Kathy Burke tells James Rampton about her new role

Hanging in pride of place over the dining room table in Kathy Burke's north London home is a still from the set of Nil by Mouth, the acclaimed domestic-violence drama for which she deservedly won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes film festival in 1997. But there's a surprise. The photo depicts the film's director, Gary Oldman, leaning over to whisper something to her co-star Ray Winstone. Burke is not in the picture.

It's an apt image. For Burke, one of our most adored actresses, is now far happier to be absent from our screens preferring to work behind the scenes.

She is a performer who, thanks to such deathless roles as Waynetta Slob and Perry (both opposite Harry Enfield), has over the years been labelled with almost tiresome regularity "a national treasure". Something about the vulnerability Burke revealed endeared her to audiences and critics alike – in one year, 1998, she was nominated for three Baftas (Nil by Mouth, Tom Jones and Harry Enfield and Chums).

Viewers were drawn to this actress who looked like them and clearly did not mind appearing un-glamorous and unkempt. Burke once joked "when you are called a character actress it's because you are too ugly to be called a leading lady". During the 1990s, Burke received accolades as frequently as Waynetta smoked fags. One newspaper dubbed her a "working-class Judi Dench", while in 2003 another put her in the Top 50 Best British Comedy Acts.

But now Burke is delighted to be operating on the other side of the camera, carving out a second career for herself as a highly regarded director in the theatre and now, for the first time, on television. Following on from such well-received stage productions as Out in the Open, The Quare Fellow, Betty and Smaller (which starred Alison Moyet and Burke's old friend Dawn French), and a spell recuperating from serious illness, she is now making her television directorial debut with Horne and Corden, the eagerly anticipated new BBC3 sketch show from the hot new comedy double-act of the millennium.

Burke is helming this very promising compendium of skits written and performed by Mathew Horne and James Corden, the stars of the multi-award-winning sitcom Gavin and Stacey. Among the characters who appear to have legs are: Jonny and Lee Miller, a pair of glitzy but rubbish West Country magicians who perform a routine to "magic away" gun crime; Tim Goodall (Horne), a very camp war correspondent who shrieks his way through reports from Iraq; and Xander (Corden), a dishevelled dipsomaniac who embarrasses given to luridly inappropriate comments.

As a director, Burke has coaxed the best out of these surprisingly versatile performers, and I can think of no higher compliment than to say that some of the sketches would not have looked out of place on the series that made her name, Harry Enfield and Chums.

I have known Burke for over 15 years, and she has always been a compelling, life-affirming presence. She treats me to a delicious bowl of home-made vegetable soup. But it's not just the minestrone that is giving her a glow: I have never seen her so artistically fulfilled.

Handing me the first of several post-prandial teas in a mug decorated with the logo from Carry On up the Khyber, the 44-year-old explains why she feels so positive about giving up acting. "I just didn't get a buzz from acting any more, so eight years ago I made the decision to focus on directing," reveals Burke, who during her illustrious performing career also won a British Comedy Award for Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (2002), a British Independent Film Award for Nil by Mouth (1998), and a Royal Television Society Award for Mr Wroe's Virgins (1994).

"I've never regretted it for a moment. I felt I'd done all I could in acting. At one point, I just wanted to disappear off the screen for a while and then reappear as an older person, but I don't even think that's going to happen now. I did two lines in a fake commercial sketch for Horne and Corden. When I watched it back, I thought I was so dreadful, I cut myself from the final edit."

So what has turned Burke off performing? "Acting just doesn't give me any joy," replies the woman who also delivered memorable performances in Absolutely Fabulous, Kevin and Perry Go Large, French and Saunders, Elizabeth, Dancing at Lughnasa and Once Upon a Time in the Midlands. "I don't have the same feeling in my belly... it just isn't there any more."

The fire appeared to go out after Burke delivered that incendiary performance as a battered wife in Nil by Mouth. "I had been waiting my whole career to do a film like that," she beams at the memory. "It was an amazing experience. I did a couple of films after that, but they never had the same feel."

Nor was she enticed by the blandishments of Hollywood. "Even when I was getting 'Billy Big Bollocks' film awards, I was never going to go to Hollywood. I wanted to stay here and get back to basics. My sense of humour is very British. I feel rooted in London."

Even Burke's old mates Enfield and Paul Whitehouse couldn't tempt her to return for their comeback series, Harry & Paul. She was, however, briefly lured out of acting retirement to play Nan's daughter for a one-off sketch in Catherine Tate's 2007 Christmas special. "I had completely given up acting, but when I got the call, it was impossible to resist. I love Nan – who doesn't? And what a performance! Even when you're on set with her, you simply forget that it's Catherine Tate.

"Also, I had been recovering from illness [the superbug C difficile and problems with her adrenal glands] for several months, and I just wanted to get out of the house!"

It was on The Catherine Tate Show that Burke first met Horne, who plays Nan's constantly mortified grandson. "It was an immediate meeting of minds," she recalls. "He spotted that on my lapel I was wearing a badge of Buster Keaton. Mat is a big fan of silent movies, so we started chatting about them straight away. That's where his wonderful deadpan-ness as a performer comes from. He's got the same marvellous impassiveness as Keaton, who was known as 'Old Stone Face'."

Burke went on to work as artistic associate on the current West End production of Entertaining Mr Sloane starring Horne, before being persuaded to direct him and Corden in their sketch show. "When Mat said, 'Jim and I really want you to direct this,' at first I told him, 'No, I'm not into directing TV. It's never rocked my boat. In TV you never know who the boss is, whereas in theatre the buck stops with the director'."

To underline the point, a couple of years ago Burke turned down an offer from the co-writers, Corden and Ruth Jones, to helm the first series of Gavin and Stacey. "I told them, 'I think this script is dynamite, so I don't want to screw it up!'"

But when it came to their sketch show, Horne and Corden would not be so easily dissuaded. Burke continues that, "Mat and Jim came round here one evening and convinced me. Did they threaten physical violence? No, but they wouldn't leave it alone!"

Eventually, their persistence paid off, and Burke was won over by their strength as performers. "It wasn't a question of wanting to direct TV – it was a question of wanting to work with the boys. I felt I could bring out their versatility. Sometimes they would suggest doing a sketch as themselves, and I'd say, 'No! What's the point of me being here? Let's introduce some characterisation and play about.'

"It's about trying to decide if one word is funnier than another and attempting to get some truth out of the performers. At the beginning, I reassured the producer, 'Don't worry, I'm not a strange, avant-garde director. It won't all be filmed in total darkness, and there won't be any flashy shots. It's all about trying to capture the gag.' The producer looked visibly relieved!"

Burke's formidable track record as a performer in sketch-show comedy no doubt benefited her work as a director. "I did throw in the odd gag," she acknowledges. "I suppose it helps that I've been in a lot of good sketches myself, and maybe Mat and Jim felt they were in safe hands. But what I liked is that they're both fearless performers."

So what does directing give Burke that acting no longer does? "I just get such a buzz from directing. I feel so lucky that writers trust me with their work. I know that in the theatre, I have been responsible for a couple of turkeys, but I always relish the challenge. It's so much more stimulating than acting. As a director, you gather people around you. You decide who's going to be in the room. It's down to you to set up an air of generosity, so it's not just everyone looking after themselves. You're all part of a team – there is no hierarchy. Just because I'm the director, I'm not the only one with all the answers. The guy next to me could see things in a way I never could and instantly unlock things. There is great camaraderie on a set. It's a collaborative process, and that's what I love about it." The cardinal rule as a director, Burke reckons, is that "you always have to serve the writer. So with Mat and Jim, it's about getting them as performers to serve them as writers."

Even though she has been off our screens for several years now, Burke remains immensely popular. "People come up to me in the street and say, 'Where's Harry?' and I reply, 'I don't know. I'm not really married to him. Wayne and Waynetta was just acting!'"

She has also learnt to take press attention in her stride. "The tabloids used to get to me loads," Burke sighs. "I've been insulted left, right and centre about the way I look. I used to get stressed about it. Now, I don't give a damn what the tabloids say. As you get older, you think, 'Who gives a shit?'"

Burke is now considering several offers to direct. She has set up her own production company, the felicitously named Betty Swollocks Presents, and is working with the presenter of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Simon Amstell, on a sitcom he has penned. "If you'd asked me two years ago about directing television, I'd have said, 'Absolutely not', but now it's a definite possibility."

So might she ever be tempted to go to Hollywood as a director? "Oh yes," Burke deadpans. "I've just directed a BBC3 sketch show. So come on, Hollywood, where's the money for my mega-bucks blockbuster movie?"

'Horne and Corden' starts on BBC3 on Tuesday 10 March