The long take: Kathy Burke

Burke may be a national treasure, but she’s never won the accolades she truly deserves

Nil by Mouth (1997)

Twenty five years ago, Gary Oldman’s directorial debut (still the only feature he has helmed) was released in the UK. Nil by Mouth is a melodrama led by character and location, with a raw documentary edge. It’s the story of an extended family in south-east London: the alcoholic husband who beats his pregnant wife and throws his junkie brother-in-law out, and two generations of stout matriarchs who somehow keep the household upright.

Nil by Mouth is a remarkable film, which the BFI has newly remastered in 4K for its screening at the BFI London Film Festival, ahead of an Oldman retrospective, a Blu-ray release and a cinema rerelease. Welcome attention indeed for a film about appalling cruelty that nevertheless remains consistently tender and non-judgemental towards its characters. It didn’t make much money at the time, but then it was never a terribly commercial proposition, set in working-class streets, with tough subject matter and a record-breaking number of expletives.

It may now have been challenged in that last category, but this dialogue still smarts. It’s not easy to make the same single-syllable word convey so many different meanings, but then Nil by Mouth is an actor’s film. Oldman draws the very best out of his capable cast, which includes Ray Winstone as Raymond and the miraculous Kathy Burke as his long-suffering wife Valerie.

Nil by Mouth (1997)

Burke gives a genuinely astonishing performance. She has a quality of understatement that is emotionally devastating, and an exceptional capacity for bleak humour. Her biggest scene occurs when Raymond turns up on her mum’s doorstep in the rain insisting he still loves her. Valerie’s bruised face speaks volumes, as the last drop of patience drains away from her eyes and she tells him he’s only fooling himself.

Burke won the Best Actress award at Cannes for Nil by Mouth, and rightly so. It was quite a whirlwind: she wasn’t at the festival but at home in London with no passport, so she flew to the awards ceremony in a private jet belonging to the film’s co-producer Luc Besson. The stuff of overnight-success fantasies. However, she was instantly put on the back foot by journalists who assumed she was simply playing a version of herself.

Hard to imagine Burke pulling a Laurence Olivier and saying, “It’s called acting, dear boy”, but she would have been within her rights. Burke trained at the Anna Scher Theatre School in Islington, where she grew up and lives still, and has been acting on screen since 1982. She was Bafta-nominated for Nil by Mouth but didn’t win. In fact, and you may want to be sitting down as you read this: Kathy Burke has never won a Bafta. Not for her pitch-perfect, vanity-free, uproarious TV comedy, nor her unflinching performances in smallscreen dramas such as Mr Wroe’s Virgins (1993), nor for any film. Is that any way to treat a national treasure?

I’m not suggesting you should feel sorry for Burke, who more or less retired from acting seven years after Nil by Mouth. Tremendously beloved, Burke works primarily as a stage director these days – although she has made a few screen and voice appearances (including a notable turn in 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Oldman), hosted documentary series for Channel 4 and the BBC, and this year directed Holding, an ITV drama adaptation of Graham Norton’s crime novel set in rural Cork.

Scrubbers (1982)

And she shouldn’t have to bear the burden of raising the representation of working-class women on screen alone. I’m selfishly considering only how much I enjoy watching Burke perform. I loved her in her debut film, Mai Zetterling’s borstal drama Scrubbers, in which the 17-year-old plays potty-mouthed cell-block comedian Glennis who has “cut here” tattooed across her neck. Zetterling, like Oldman, was another actor-turned-director and on the set of that film Burke says she told her: “You need to write, you need to direct, you need to create your own work.” Burke has taken those words to heart.

OK, I wouldn’t mind seeing Burke win a few awards. Proper ones, before we get around to the lifetime achievement nonsense – she’s only 58. It’s difficult to avoid a comparison with Olivia Colman, who just like Burke broke a run of TV comedy roles with a performance in an actor’s directorial debut about addiction and domestic violence when she appeared in Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur (2011). Since then, Colman’s career has gone stratospheric and she has a shelf-full of Baftas, and an Oscar, for performances in challenging roles. Or with Winstone, whose career flared up again after Nil by Mouth.

Acclaim would be nice, but a good laugh is hard to beat so perhaps it’s back to box-sets. Burke told Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs that the role closest to her own self was the gurning teenage boy Perry she played alongside Harry Enfield’s Kevin. On the rare occasion she did win a prize – a British Comedy Award for her role as the delusional Linda in Gimme Gimme Gimme (1999-2001) – Burke reproached the industry types for failing to recognise the show earlier: “It’s about fucking time… I think we’ve all got to leave the Groucho [Club], sit at home and watch telly like normal people. Then you’ll appreciate it.”

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