Kathy comes home a proper film star

Interview; Deborah Ross talks to KATHY BURKE
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Kathy Burke knows Gary Oldman from way back. From when they were teenagers, in fact, and appeared in a play together, and she fell rather in love with him and made "a twit of myself mooning all over 'im like some big pranny". Did she sleep with him? I ask. No, she says, although she could have done. Certainly, he was keen. He wanted, she says proudly, "to be my first, actually".

And you resisted? You could have lost your virginity to Gary Oldman and you resisted? Yes, she says, because at that time "it would have been all about him and nothing to do with me". Kathy has great integrity. Kathy knows when emotions are true and when they are not, which is what makes her such a great actress. And Gary, of course, knows Kathy is like this, which is why he cast her in his film Nil By Mouth. I think Kathy must be one of the few actresses to have been offered a part because she didn't sleep with the director. I think Kathy Burke rather fine. As does the rest of the world, now.

Last week, Kathy Burke was named best actress at Cannes for her performance as Val, a battered wife, in Gary's autobiographical film. A lot of people were surprised she beat Kim Basinger and Sigourney Weaver and the like, but I wasn't. She's always been brilliant. Brilliant in drama series like Common as Muck and Mr Wroe's Virgins, brilliant as those comic grotesques Tina Bishop, the darts-fixated super-slattern, and Waynetta Slob in Harry Enfield and Friends, who is very un-Kim or Sigourney but does pick at her cold sores in a most becoming way.

Anyway, she was as stunned as anyone, she says. She was at home, in her council flat, still in her jim-jams and having a fag (" 'Cos I'm always having a fag, aren't I?") when the news came. "I thought: 'Fuckin' hell, oh my God'. I was in a terrible state. I didn't have time to think. I didn't even have time to wash me hair." She says walking up the steps at the Palais in Cannes, hand in hand with Gary to collect her prize, was "one of the most boo'iful moments of my life". I love the way she says "boo'iful". If nothing else, she must be treasured for this.

She hadn't spoken to Gary for years when he approached her with the script. Yes, they did fall out rather over the sleeping-together business. No, she doesn't regret not taking him up on his offer. She was very young, 19. It was probably just a crush, anyway. But it was "boo'iful" getting to know him again.

He's a "proper man" she continues, and she likes "proper men". What is a proper man exactly? A proper man, she explains, is one "who can see when a woman's vulnerable and not try and destroy her because of it". Vinnie Jones, she then adds, is a proper man. Vinnie Jones? "Yeah, he looks after his wife, who's very poorly. I met him once when I was dressed up as Tina Bishop. A right old dog I looked. But he still flirted with me and went 'Phoooar' and wanted to get hold of me." And you like that? "I love that!" she cries.

We meet at a hotel in Dorset, where she is filming Tom Jones for the BBC. She is still in quite a spin. The bouquets! The offers! The invite from the Queen! Invite from the Queen? Yes! Buckingham Palace faxed this morning. She's been invited to the Queen's polo match next month. "The Queen's fucking polo match!" cries Kathy. "What'll you wear?" I cry, because I'm shallow and want to know about such things. "Fuck knows," she cries, because she isn't and doesn't. Although, later, you do get a tentative: "Something linen, I think."

Miss Burke is 33 and rather limp-haired, with chain-smoker's skin and darkly shadowed eyes. But she is immensely attractive in her own grittily honest way. She has a lovely smile, and those nice teeth, "which were all mashed up and rotten till I got them fixed." She has, she says, no hang-ups about her looks whatsoever. "Boo'y," she says. "is how others make you feel. When I'm with the people who love me, I feel boo'iful."

Nil By Mouth doesn't open here until October, but I'm going to tell you about it anyway, because it's such a remarkable film. Set on a south London estate, there is no narrative as such. Events happen because of who the characters are. The men booze and go to strip joints and beat their wives. The women smoke a lot and cook egg and chips and get beaten. The film is remarkable because, interwoven into all this brutality and pain, there is a good deal of love and this sense that, underneath it all, no one can do without anyone else. It's powerful stuff, as is Kathy's performance. But then she, like Gary, knows about all these things. Kathy's father, Paddy, was a big drinker who could, yes, be ugly and violent. But still she loved him and never doubted he loved her. He told her so, then? "Fuck, yeah. He was Irish. He was always saying: 'I loves you, I loves you, you're my dotter.' " He died three years ago and she still misses him horribly. "I used to go see him every day for a cuppa and a fag and a catch-up." The first few months without him were the worst. "I got very thin. Dawn French had to look after me. She took me to somewhere in Cornwall and fed me up. I got very, very tiny, which is nature's way of saying 'Put your arm around me', innit?"

Kathy was born in Islington, north London - in the poor bit, not the Blair bit - where she still lives today in her one-bed council flat. It's a lovely flat, she says. "It's not in a tower block. It's got its own front door. It's more like a little house." She then adds, irrelevantly but proudly: "I've got one of those really big tellies."

Her mother, Bridie, died of cancer when she was 18 months old. She's heard she was a very good woman, though. "My Aunt Nellie says she was a boo'iful mother to my brothers. She wouldn't give them their tea without a boo'iful white tablecloth on the table. She gave them the best, babe. She gave them steak." Her brothers, Barry and John, were eight and 10 when their mother died. "It was much more horrendous for them."

Her father being unable to cope with a toddler, she was fostered by a family friend until she was five and her brothers decided they could look after her themselves. Her brothers sound wonderful, I say. They are, she says.

"They let me be the kid. Even now, John holds my hand when we cross a road. Barry did the cleaning and took out the rubbish. John patched up our uniforms and did the cooking. It was boiled bacon and cabbage on Saturdays and lamb on Sundays, if the money was around." And if it wasn't? "I went to me Auntie Joan's or me Auntie Nellie's for my dinner. God knows what John and Barry did, the poor fuckers."

Where, I wonder, was her father in all this? Drinking? Not all the time, no. "He was a binger. You'd have a couple of months when he'd be sober and try to be a good father and do the right thing and bring home the wages, and then he'd be off. Once I was 13 and on the bus with me mate Mary when we passed this little bit of green where all the winos used to go and it was a little bit embarrassing because I saw me dad there amongst them all.When it was bad, it was very bad." Violent bad? "Yeah, although I don't really want to talk about that." And at other times? "He was like all drunks. Unhappy and in a lot of pain."

He was a labourer who hated labouring and would, she thinks, have been much more fulfilled as a writer or something. He was an intelligent man. He always made Barry and John and Kathy watch Play for Today, because he thought it important. He banned ITV because it was "crap". He read a lot. His favourite book was Papillon, which he read countless times.

Kathy was a bright kid. She could read before she was four. She used to spend a lot of time in the Angel Bookshop down Camden Passage, where they let her sit on a stool in the children's section and read until closing without buying anything. She would, she thinks, have been an academic high achiever if the head of her primary school hadn't told her father she needed to go to an all-girls convent job. "I think she thought that if I went to a mixed school I'd get pregnant, not having a mother or anything. I didn't actually start having sex until I was 23. I don't give myself away so easy, sweetheart."

At the convent, the nuns, she said, treated girls like her as if they were "thick as shit". She never took an exam, let alone passed one. She bunked off, mostly. And would, she thinks, have ended up like Val if it hadn't have been for Mr Poole, an English teacher who ran drama sessions which always ended up with him and Kathy improvising something or other. "I would pretend to be a secretary and flirt with him, showing him me terrible teeth."

He recommended she attend classes at the Anna Scher theatre school, which ran special, free evenings for working-class kids. The first time she went she only had to stand up and say her name but, still, it was tremendously exciting. "I just sat and watched. I got home around 9pm. I'm usually a night person. But I remember going into the kitchen, where John was making beans, and saying: "I'm knackered. I'm going to bed. It's all been too exhilarating.' "

She got her big break in 1982, when Mai Zetterling cast her in the film Scrubbers. Around the same time, her father gave up drinking. "He went to see me in the film and was so proud. He sat there saying: 'That's my little girl up there.' He knew drink was destroying him, and sometimes he could see it was destroying us. There was a time when I was very cold towards him. Off the booze, he was very cute, very sweet. He drank, I think, because he was fundamentally a shy man and drink took him out of himself. Plus he was left with three kids at 30, for fuck's sake."

He died after prostate cancer spread to his liver. She was holding his hand when he went. He seemed to see something, then smiled, just before he closed his eyes for the final time. Then something, she's not sure what, seemed to flutter out of the room. "Now, I know some people are going to think I'm away with the fairies, but I witnessed it and so did John, who'd always been an atheist. It was a boo'iful experience." Did she forgive him before he went? Forgive him for what, she wants to know. Love, when it's true, is unconditional.

Does she have a lot of love to give? I reckon so, although she finds it hard to find blokes to give it to. She's had plenty of affairs -"although never with married men, because I don't shit on women" - but no long-term relationships. She doesn't know why. Perhaps, I suggest, you give of yourself so wholeheartedly, you're scary. Yes, she accepts, I may have a point here.

Is the prize going to change her? In some ways, yes. She plans to buy her own flat, now, and she might even start shopping at Agnes B, because she's heard their T-shirts last longer than "the ones you get down Chapel Market".

But as for Hollywood, stuff that. "It would be nice to earn a huge amount of money. Then I could buy all me mates flats as well. But it's not on me agenda. I wanna stick with kindred spirits. I wanna do good work. Good work with kindred spirits is boo'iful." As she is to us.