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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End of an orator: the ancient Roman machinations of Robert Harris's Dictator

Dictator, the final installment in the "Cicero trilogy", finds the great lawyer exiled from Rome.

If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.

At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.

We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”

Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.

All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.

The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.

Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.

Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.

Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins

Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror