Gilbey on Film: In praise of Kathy Burke

A comic actor's baggage can often work to great dramatic effect.

My thoughts have turned recently to Kathy Burke. I was channel-surfing, a pursuit that will bring even the least committed enthusiast into contact very quickly with Gimme Gimme Gimme. I make no apologies for guffawing at that shrill, Jonathan Harvey-scripted sitcom, but we are not here to discuss guilty pleasures. Naturally, I started pining for Burke, who was outstanding in Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth, but who has since retired from acting to concentrate on directing, with the occasional exception such as her small role in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. (She can also be heard on the latest edition of the Radio 4 comedy series I've Never Seen Star Wars.)

"I felt I'd done all I could in acting," Burke told the Independent's James Rampton in 2009:

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 [the poorly received sketch show that she directed]. When I watched it back, I thought I was so dreadful, I cut myself from the final edit . . . Acting just doesn't give me any joy . . . I don't have the same feeling in my belly . . . It just isn't there any more . . . I had been waiting my whole career to do a film like [Nil By Mouth]. It was an amazing experience. I did a couple of films after that but they never had the same feel.

I had already been thinking about her after seeing Tyrannosaur, which marks the actor Paddy Considine's debut as a director. (I review the film in tomorrow's issue of the NS.) Burke isn't in the movie but she came to mind for two reasons. Firstly, the acclaim that has rightly been directed toward Olivia Colman's performance as an abused charity-shop worker in Tyrannosaur recalls the situation in which Burke found herself when Nil By Mouth premiered at Cannes in 1997. Burke was awarded the festival's Best Actress prize by Isabelle Adjani's jury for her portrayal of a similarly abused woman.

She talks in her fascinating Desert Island Discs appearance of the palaver on the morning when she was told she had won the award and had to fly to Cannes, despite not having a passport. (She also tells of how she first met Oldman in 1983, when she was paid £30 by Mike Leigh to be the actor's "skinhead consultant" on Meantime.) What's interesting about Burke's acclaim from a British perspective is how it was tinged with surprise. Despite making her film debut in Mai Zetterling's Scrubbers (sold as the female Scum), and later working onstage for Leigh (in It's a Great Big Shame!) and on television in Danny Boyle's Mr Wroe's Virgins, Burke had been known primarily for her comic characters developed with Harry Enfield (most memorably as Waynetta Slob and the gawky teenager Perry). So, for most viewers, her portrait of Val in Nil By Mouth would have been a shock comparable to hearing Lady Gaga do an exceptional job of hosting In Our Time.

Burke's fine performance felt doubly powerful for revealing an aspect of her talent that had been largely hidden. The collective feeling was: "We didn't know she had it in her."

The response to Colman's performance has a similar composition: one part naked admiration, one part "Where the hell did that come from?" Like Burke, Colman has done her share of dramatic acting -- she had a dry run for her Tyrannosaur character in Considine's short film Dog Altogether and appeared most recently the BBC drama Exile. But if audiences know her at all, it will be from her highly nuanced work as Sophie in the Channel 4 comedy Peep Show or as a goofy rural police officer in Hot Fuzz.

Never mind that these were acting jobs first and comedy second. The misconception exists in our minds that comedy is lightweight, or goofing around -- that anyone can do it. This has arisen because the response that comedy seeks to elicit from us is laughter, and we've all made someone laugh at least once in our lives. Most of us have used language or timing or a daft voice to raise a giggle, even if it's only in a pub or on the sofa. The feeling is that anyone can do that.

Fewer will have called upon the non-humorous equivalent in their daily lives, the tears or anguish displayed in Tyrannosaur or Nil By Mouth, so we naturally assume that this must be the harder discipline. No wonder the move from comedy to drama is widely and erroneously regarded as a "step up". In 1978, Woody Allen told Newsweek magazine: "When you do comedy you're not sitting at the grown-ups' table, you're sitting at the children's table." But that's not the whole story. Who is to say that, once you've been promoted to sit among the grown-ups, you will be equipped to tell your fish knife from your soup spoon? Allen has demonstrated only the most superficial grasp of maturity. Is Annie Hall more "mature" than Interiors? Should Love and Death be consigned to the children's table while everyone pretends that Match Point can pass for a grown-up work?

This prejudice has long been ratified by award-giving bodies, who rarely bestow prizes on comedies. In the past 30 years, the Best Picture Oscar has gone to only two films that could be described as humorous, and even those were cross-bred with other genres -- period piece (Shakespeare in Love) and weepie (Terms of Endearment). "Dying is easy, comedy is hard" goes the old saw, but we have inherited an assumption that is almost exactly the reverse: comedy is easy, crying is hard.

Considine has spoken of the influence on Tyrannosaur of Nil By Mouth. Is it possible that he was inspired also by the dynamic at play in that film between the audience's expectations of Colman, and the demands of the role? Using a predominantly comic performer in a part that requires the audience's sympathy can only benefit the movie. See also Allison Janney playing Chris Cooper's downtrodden wife in American Beauty: what better way to communicate instantly that character's suffering than to take a performer known for her champagne fizz and have her play flat? Colman, Burke and Janney give performances that would be commendable in any context. Those who cast and direct them have shown an insight into how to use a performer's baggage, as well as their talent, to good advantage.

"Tyrannosaur" opens on Friday.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser