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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Quoting psychoanalysts – and other innovative ways of coming up with lines of poetry

Three new collections of poetry – Stranger, Baby, Jackself, and Cain  test the limits of the lyric and of writing the self in extremis.

Stranger, Baby, by Emily Berry
Faber & Faber, 61pp, £10.99

Jackself, by Jacob Polley
Picador, 80pp, £9.99

Cain, by Luke Kennard
Penned in the Margins, 100pp, £9.99

Here are three new collections by poets who in various ways are testing the limits of the lyric and writing the self in extremis. The poems in Emily Berry’s second collection, Stranger, Baby, concern grieving the death of one’s mother. One of the many risks that Berry runs is to be mistaken for a straightforwardly autobiographical poet. These poems frequently feel close to unmediated candour and, throughout, we seem to be in the presence of a single voice (albeit one on the brink of emotional fragmentation) and a single personality.

In fact, they are constructed of many voices and they collage quotations from a number of psychoanalysts, which may account for the way they introduce psychic tumult by striking an unnervingly matter-of-fact tone: “You must imagine it like this . . .” or “This is the body’s way of handling emotion . . .” They are at once more intelligently crafted and more saturated with feeling than most poems, refracting the loss again and again, suspicious and vigilant:

I wrote: The sea! The sea! as if that might be a solution

Didn’t we always suspect the pain of intelligent people was truly the most painful?

The sea – that timeless and inescapable symbol of the unconscious, the memory, the mother – is a near-constant presence in the book, as in “Picnic”:

Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person

I tried to do that

All that year I visited a man in a room

I polished my feelings

The striking metaphor for analysis, and Berry’s unusual angle of approach, are impressive, but the subtle sense of alienation that pervades Stranger, Baby has even more to do with her use of that slightly awkward “a person” instead of the more expected “someone”. Of course, what Berry mistrusts above all is the polishing of feelings: if grief is to be written with honesty, it must be written as the ragged, ugly trial that it is. “Drunken Bellarmine” ends with the warning:

. . . DON’T LOVE ME: I am guilty,

fatalistic and sticky round the mouth like a dirty baby.

I am a shitting, leaking, bloody clump of cells,

raw, murky and fluorescent, you couldn’t take it.

Stranger, Baby is a daring, hard-won collection of poems.

I vividly remember the first time I read R F Langley’s “Man Jack”, and it still seems to me one of the most remarkable poetic creations of recent decades. Inspired by the OED’s enormous list of entries for “jack”, the poem shakes loose a new, timeless character and lets him range across English folklore and song. It begins:

So Jack’s your man, Jack is your man in things.

And he must come along, and he must stay

close, be quick and right, your little cousin

Jack, a step ahead, deep in the hedge, on

edge, a kiss a rim, at pinch, in place, turn

face and tip a brim, each inch of him, the

folded leaf, the important straw. What for.

“Man Jack” is also a technical tour de force, resolving syllabics and traditional prosody into a seamless music. It would be cruel but not entirely inaccurate to say that Jacob Polley’s latest collection, the T S Eliot Prize-winning Jackself, spends 80 pages trying to do what Langley accomplished in 90 lines. Here is Jackself’s playmate Jeremy Wren:

tell us what’s wrong, Jeremy Wren,

crouched in the corner, spitting no blood,

robust in bladder and bowel, your toes

untouched by fire or flood,

no cold wind blows

there’s hair on your feet and mint

in your groin and tonight

is milk, tomorrow cream

and the day after that

a herd that lows

from your very own

meadowland of light

The rhythms are borrowed, but at least Polley’s imagery can be relied on to transport the reader to his spooky version of northern England, where Jack Frost stalks the suburbs “wearing his homemade thousand-milk-bottle-top/winter suit”. The trouble is that it’s only a matter of time before a Literary Influence barges in and spoils it for everyone. Even if you don’t know “Man Jack”, the shades of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walter de la Mare and Marianne Moore intrude; and it is dismaying that in Polley’s fourth book Ted Hughes still acts as if he owns the place. At one point Jackself and Jeremy Wren go night-fishing in “the kidney-coloured pool/all the streams of England run into”. This reworks Hughes’s signature poem “Pike”, in which the poet night-fishes a pond “as deep as England”.

The most telling moments come when Polley confronts the question of precursors. In “The Lofts”, the timid Jackself stands among “the skeletons of past Selves” such as “Edwardself, Billself/Wulfself” but runs away scared before he can claim “the silence that was yours/by birth”. In “Snow Dad”, the more proactive Jeremy Wren makes a larger-than-life replica of his father so that he can “run clean through him/and leave a me-hole”. Sadly, we are yet to see Polley’s me-hole. His skills are beyond doubt, but his ambitions feel derivative and his last collection, 2012’s The Havocs, attempted and achieved far more than Jackself.

In Luke Kennard’s Cain the trope of the alter ego gets a more contemporary treatment: the only thing here “resplendent in the twilight” is a supermarket logo when the poet wants to buy booze. The poems tell the story of a character, “Luke Kennard”, preyed upon by the mysterious Cain, “Tutelary spirit of the fugitive and/heavenly advocate for fan fiction”. Part guru and part tormentor, Cain cajoles the poet into a series of damning self-assessments: “Self-Portrait at Primary School” begins “I was so obliging I let the weirdest, smelliest kid pick on me/because I thought it might make him feel better” and ends “And even at the time it struck me: maybe I was the dangerous one”. To some extent this is ground that Kennard has covered before, but Cain is an altogether darker creation, written from the doldrums between youth and middle-age (the stretch that people who don’t hate themselves call their “prime”).

The second section of the collection consists of 31 anagrams of Genesis 4:9-12, in which the Lord curses Cain for the murder of Abel. This generates such phrases as “Huff on that cheroot, doorman! How’s the deathshroud, honeydew? From here on all will be [Static.]”. Many of the anagrams would be almost entirely resistant to sense, but surrounding them, like exegesis bordering a sacred text, are prose glosses explaining how the Cain anagrams are in fact the product of a surreal sitcom. Written from the perspective of a rabid fan of the show, the glosses regale us with trivia, interviews with the cast and crew, and fan theories on the meaning of each anagram/episode.

The result is hilariously reflexive about the self-imposed challenges Kennard has taken up, as the anagrams howl through the language like a prisoner through the bars of his cell. It feels strange to describe a book of poems as gripping, but Cain is so profoundly funny and so profoundly sad, so inconsolably intelligent and so brilliantly vulnerable, that “gripping” is the word. 

Paul Batchelor is the director of the creative writing programme at Durham University. His poetry collection “The Sinking Road” is published by Bloodaxe

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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