School for working class heroes - and heroines

Ros Wynne-Jones meets Kathy Burke's teacher, Anna Scher

Ros Wynne-Jones
Saturday 24 May 1997 23:02 BST

At Anna Scher's Children's Theatre in the scruffy part of Islington, north London, rows of shining faces are lined up, all attentive. Ms Scher, who has been bringing inner-city children to the stage for 30 years, eyes her charges. "Now, we have been talking today about the importance of having a generous spirit," she says. "Something wonderful has happened this week to someone who spent many years at this theatre who has a gargantuan generous spirit. Does anyone know who I am talking about?"

Hands shoot up into the air. "Kathy Burke!" Ms Scher, a 52-year-old Jewish- Irish woman, nods seriously. "Kathy Burke has won the Best Actress award at Cannes," she says, to joyous applause. "If you watched her win on the television you would have seen even the reporters smiling. That is the effect Kathy has on people. She is incredibly talented, but what I love about Kathy is that she is also very modest. She came here for 12 years from the age of 15. And when she got off the plane from Cannes she came straight round here." With a sharp clap of her hands, the subject is dismissed and it is back to improvisation.

Burke won her award for her performance in Nil By Mouth, the actor Gary Oldman's directorial debut. Although she is also an award-winning writer, accomplished director and serious actress, in Britain she is better known for her comic creations: Waynetta Slob and sex-crazed adolescent Perry in Harry Enfield and Chums, and gravel-voiced Magda in Absolutely Fabulous.

Like a stream of other working-class British actors - Patsy Palmer, Pauline Quirke, Linda Robson, Gillian Taylforth, Susan Tully, Jesse Birdsall, Dexter Fletcher, Gary and Martin Kemp - Burke began under the tuition of Anna Scher at 50p a lesson.

Nowadays lessons are pounds 2.50 but the theatre's egalitarian principle remains. There are no auditions, everyone goes on the waiting list - four years for children, 18 months for adults - and providing they show enough commitment, they stay. No nonsense is tolerated from parents, who are warned that the classes are about learning skills for life, not turning children into stars. AST children don't do advertising or modelling. The theatre currently has 1,000 members and 3,000 on its waiting list.

Kathy Burke, who still lives in a council flat in non-Blairite Islington, is a shining example not just of the AST method (Stanislavsky, improvised, natural) but of the AST ethos (down-to-earth, honest, anti-prima donna). She is now also known for having written an open letter to Helena Bonham Carter - after the Merchant-Ivory actress lamented that homely working- class actresses had it easy - which began "Shut up, you stupid c***". Anna Scher, who teaches her pupils to speak out, almost certainly approved of the sentiment if not of the language.

Ms Scher, who had to fight her traditionalist family to fulfil her dreams of the stage, narrows her eyes short-sightedly at her cockney Kids from Fame. It seems for all the world as if she is about to bang a stick on the dark wooden floor and break into "Fame costs ... and right here is where you'll start paying...." Instead, we learn that the "f-word" ("fame") and the "s-word" ("star") are dirty words at the AST. "We do not tolerate hubristic behaviour here," says Ms Scher, firmly. "Being an actor is just a job. Compared to being a midwife it is really nothing and you should all remember that."

I Am late for Anna Scher's adult drama class. This is a terrible mistake. Punctuality, she tells me, is one of the five Ps for Professional People: "Punctuality, preparation, presentation, practice, positive. "Posture" is obviously the sixth. I am to stop slouching and take my hands out of my pockets. I instantly feel like Waynetta Slob.

The taxi-driver standing next to me in the circle is the brother of Patsy Palmer and the woman next to him is Patsy's cousin. Both have been inspired by their relative's performance as EastEnders' flame-haired temptress Bianca Jackson. I try saying I'm award-winning Kathy Burke's sister but no one believes me.

We limber up our arms and legs with some character-building jiggling and our voices with tongue-twisters repeated in the style of a Greek chorus. "Seven silly smokers ..." we begin like a Stop Smoking hypnotherapy class with stage-school diction. Anna catches my eye sternly as I trail off. I'm thinking about how to slip out for a fag. We have learnt that smoking, drinking and being unfit are the enemies of professionalism. I want to protest that Kathy Burke a) smokes like a chimney, b) is reputedly always down her local, c) doesn't look as if she attends aerobic classes regularly. Instead I scuff my heels, scowling like Perry the teenager.

After limbering up, we begin some warm-up exercises for the soul. We all learn some of Anna's sayings, including Desmond Tutu's "Everyone's a VSP - Very Special Person" and Anon's "Don't leave things to the last minute". Uttered by lesser mortals these would be cliches, but a combination of Anna's soft Irish accent and the complete sincerity with which they are spoken render them inspirational.

We dance to "Shine a Light" by Eurovision winners Katrina and The Waves and perform some Whose Line Is It Anyway?-style improvisation. You can't help but try your best under Anna's unblinking gaze but by the end I don't need her to tell me that I'll never be holding the Best Actress award over my head at Cannes.

But then neither will most of the children and adults at the AST. The aim is rather that they will walk away articulate and empowered. At Anna Scher, fame is really not the point.

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