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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.