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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Herman Melville's mystery: was Billy Budd black?

A newly unearthed photograph identifies the African-American Trafalgar survivor who appears in Melville’s final novel. Could the book’s hero have been black, too?

The photograph below tells a remarkable tale. I discovered it in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle while researching my new book. The image, taken by John Havers, was acquired by Prince Albert in the 1850s and it portrays veterans of Trafalgar at the Royal Navy hospital in Greenwich in 1854. Sitting on a bench overlooking the Thames, these aged faces and bodies were a familiar sight in south London in their 18th-century-style frock coats and cocked hats, earning them the nickname “Greenwich geese”.

One figure in particular stands out. Using the hospital records, I identified the third man from the left as Richard Baker, an African American, born in Baltimore in 1770, who served at Trafalgar on HMS Leviathan; he entered the hospital in 1839. Seventeen men born in Africa fought for the British during the battle; 123 from the West Indies. There is a black man portrayed on the Westminster-facing bronze plaque on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. But the records show only one Trafalgar veteran from Baltimore: Baker, who is likely to have been a freed or even escaped slave.
Richard Baker (third from the left, with a cane) with fellow veterans of the Battle of Trafalgar in Greenwich in 1854. Photo: Royal Collection Trust

This is a powerful story. But this man also has a special literary significance. On his visit to London in 1849, Herman Melville visited Greenwich and met “an old pensioner in a cocked hat” on the river terrace. It was a vivid encounter that he recalled more than 40 years later in his last and most evocative book, Billy Budd, Sailor. This “Baltimore Negro, a Trafalgar man” was almost certainly Richard Baker. He told Melville how many men had been taken from jail to serve in the navy.

Billy Budd is impressed from a merchant ship that is symbolically named the Rights-of-Man. Melville had written with empathy of people of colour in Moby-Dick, including a scene in which the tattooed Pacific Islander Queequeg and his white bed-mate, Ishmael, declare themselves man and wife. In the opening of Billy Budd, Melville introduces the idea of the “Handsome Sailor”, who, flanked by his fellow mariners, is a “superior figure of their own class, moving along with them like Aldebaran among the lesser lights of his constellation”. One “remarkable instance” of this higher breed occurs to him – a black sailor he had seen in the Liverpool docks ten years earlier:

The two ends of a gay silk handkerchief thrown loose about the neck danced upon the displayed ebony of his chest; in his ears were big hoops of gold, and a Scotch Highland bonnet with a tartan band set off his shapely head. It was a hot noon in July; and his face, lustrous with perspiration, beamed with barbaric good humour. In jovial sallies right and left, his white teeth flashing into view, he rollicked along, the centre of a company of his shipmates.

Was Billy Budd, the Handsome Sailor at the heart of the book, black? Scholars such as John Bryant believe that there is internal evidence in the manuscript of the book – found in a bread tin after Melville’s death in 1891 and not published until 1924 – that the author had played with the idea of making his hero a man of African heritage. Billy is loved by all the crew and is described as blond and blue-eyed later in the story. Yet the sensuous descriptions of the Liverpool sailor and the Greenwich veteran elide to create a counterfactual version in which Billy becomes a black star at the centre of his constellation of shipmates.

Indeed, some critics – most notably, Cassandra Pybus at the University of Sydney – have suggested that another 19th-century anti-hero was a person of colour. In Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, two years before Melville’s visit, Heathcliff is described as a “regular black”, an orphan found in the Liverpool docks – an intriguing notion explored in Andrea Arnold’s brilliant 2011 film adaptation.

Melville witnessed great changes in the fortunes of black Americans. Moby-Dick is an allegory of the struggle against slavery in the run-up to the American Civil War; the Melville scholar Robert K Wallace believes that the writer heard the fugitive slave-turned-emancipationist Frederick Douglass speak in the 1840s and that they may have even met. Nor is it a coincidence that Captain Ahab goes in pursuit of a white whale. It is both the elusive other and the pallor that might appal: Melville suggests that whiteness does not necessarily represent the pure and the good. It’s also a fable that has since found resonance in George W Bush’s pursuit of Osama Bin Laden and the illusory weapons of mass destruction, and in Donald Trump’s crazed crusades.


Terence Stamp as Billy Budd in Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film. Photo: Alamy

Melville wrote vituperatively about the use of flogging in both the American and the British navies. Billy Budd’s back­story is the 1797 naval mutiny in the Thames Estuary, during which mutineers attempted to blockade London and set up a “Floating Republic”. All of these themes are played out in Melville’s parable. Billy, the Handsome Sailor, is beloved of all the ship’s crew, including the captain. But Claggart, the jealous master of arms, frames him as a potential mutineer. Faced with the charge, Billy instinctively hits out and accidentally kills the officer. The captain has no choice: the state demands the death of the “fated boy”. “Struck dead by an angel of God!” he says. “Yet the Angel must hang!”

Having served on whaling and navy ships, Melville knew intimately the hierarchies at sea and the way they echoed the abuse of imperial power. Many men were stolen twice over: as African slaves, then as impressed sailors. Living in Manhattan, he saw other casualties of a period of revolution and international disruption, the 1840s. In Redburn (1849) written as the Irish famine was creating a new trade in people, he records the impact of mass migration to the US. To those who ask whether “multitudes of foreign poor should be landed on our American shores”, he replies, “If they can get here, they have God’s right to come; though they bring all Ireland and her miseries with them. For the whole world is the patrimony of the whole world.”

Melville’s humanity shines across time and space. In 1953, when detained on Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay, the Trinidadian-born writer C L R James saw Ahab’s tyranny as a precursor of the modern cult of personality and an indictment of McCarthyite accusations. As Melville’s last, elegiac word on the subject – having exiled himself as a customs inspector in the same harbour – Billy Budd spoke out against injustice. In the image of Richard Baker, with his grey hair, cane and Trafalgar medal, we see that sensibility brought back to life. Isolated in the unfeeling city, Melville looked back to his lost past in his poem “John Marr”:

Ye float around me, form and feature;
Tattooings, ear-rings, love-locks curled;
Barbarians of man’s simpler nature,
Unworldly servers of the world.

He knew who the true barbarians were. And as his white whale resurfaced as an allegory for a nuclear age, so his Handsome Sailor became the embodiment of the alien, the beautiful and the wronged. His innocent body was hymned by E M Forster and Eric Crozier in their libretto for Britten’s Cold War opera in 1951. He was bleached blond for Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film starring Terence Stamp – a clip of which appears on the banks of TV screens watched by Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Budd’s sacrifice mirroring that of the character played by the flame-haired David Bowie. Newton, a refugee in time and space, falls to Earth like a comet to warn us of nuclear and environmental destruction – and is imprisoned for his sins. “This is modern America,” the authorities say, “and we’re going to keep it that way.”

If Moby-Dick acquired elements of science fiction (Andrew Delbanco, the author of Melville’s most recent major biography, describes Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey as a “very Melvillean film”), then Billy Budd’s ritual continually reinvents itself. In 1999, the French director Claire Denis reset the story in northern Africa in her film Beau Travail – a kind of eroticised ballet of bare male bodies set to Britten’s music (and played out on the same shores from which new refugees now set off for western Europe). Through all these incarnations, the Handsome Sailor persists: from black star and hanged man to alien and avatar.

And at the centre of it all is Richard Baker. His ship, HMS Leviathan, had long since been consigned to the mud of Portsmouth Harbour as a prison hulk for convicts about to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was then known. Baker, also stranded on a foreign shore, looks over the reflecting Thames as it reaches out to the sea – that same mutinous waterway that at the century’s end would lead to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. With his medal pinned proudly to his chest, he looks out of his past into our future, quietly aware of his power.

“RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” by Philip Hoare is published by Fourth Estate

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder