When I meet Kathy Burke, in a recording studio in north London, she is talking about how much she loves young people and their desire to improve things – their life force. She can’t bear oldies like John Cleese “complaining about wokeness because he doesn’t get it. It’s because you’re old.” she says. “You’ve had your time, it was great, now fuck off! Why this need to remain relevant?” At 58, having already enjoyed a huge career, first as a comic actor and now as a director, Burke has “a lot of hope for young people. Once us old cunts have gone.”
All of which makes it more surprising that we are actually here to talk about death, and specifically a new podcast that Burke has surprised even herself by launching, called Where There’s a Will There’s a Wake, in which she talks to her comedy friends about how they would like to die. Dawn French, James Acaster and Stewart Lee, among other guests, go deep in what Burke describes as her “fantasy football” version of death and funeral planning.
Burke herself has had brushes with the grim reaper – one in particular that will shock me when she tells me about it, later on. “So I just want to take the piss out of it now,” she says. “We’re laughing in the face of death.” Reader, it was not always thus.
In fact, Burke’s life began with death – her mum died 18 months after giving birth to her daughter. Burke was cared for by various relatives and foster parents while her dad, a drinker and a builder, tried to sort himself out before taking her back into their home. She says she learned that she could manipulate this situation with other adults by bursting into tears, even though she had never really known any different: “I honestly didn’t feel anything about not having a mum – it was just that I wanted a Mars bar.” When people spoke of her mother, it was as if she were angelic. The only photos she had of her were of her in her wedding dress. So Burke was shocked to eventually discover she had been opinionated and sweary, “Which was so fucking nice to finally find out. Like, ‘Ohhh, so that’s where I get it from.’”
As a Catholic in an Irish family, growing up in a council flat in Islington, Burke attended Maria Fidelis convent school, but says the nuns even swore a lot, too, calling her all sorts of names. She left at 16 and studied drama with Anna Scher, the great champion of working-class London talent. By 18, in 1982, she had been cast in a film called Scrubbers, alongside Robbie Coltrane and Miriam Margolyes, set in a young offenders’ institute for girls, and other small film parts followed. It was sketch comedy where she would really make her name, playing Bananarama and Spice Girls parody acts with French and Saunders, and then Perry the Teenager and Waynetta Slob with Harry Enfield in the 1990s.
In 1997, her serious acting skills won her the best actor award at Cannes, when she co-starred in the incredible Nil By Mouth, playing a woman so badly beaten by her drug-dealer husband that she is hospitalised, her spirit almost broken. The BFI have just remastered the film to celebrate its 25th anniversary and she remains immensely proud of it. But they filmed it “in these very cold, empty flats” on sprawling estates in south London, and after long days of shooting she refused to go to the pub with Ray Winstone and the rest of the cast, despite being friendly with them. It had triggered something in her, feelings about a life she could have ended up with. “I wanted to go home, shut my door,” she tells me, “and think, there but for the grace of God go I.”
At this point, Burke’s deepest, secret goal in life was simply to get past the age her mother had died at. So while some people dread ageing, Burke’s 40th birthday was a cause for huge celebration. It was with a cruel twist of fate that she found herself in hospital for major stomach surgery for diverticulitis soon afterwards, only to contract an even more worrying hospital bug while in there. “And what the doctors didn’t realise is I’ve also got a blood condition called Hughes syndrome, which causes the blood to clot. And so with the C difficile, because my immune system had just gone out the fucking window, my adrenal glands clotted and bled. So I have no natural adrenaline now. I have been on steroids for 17 years.”
I loved the Will Smith slap – the look on the faces of the other A-listers
Still, she recovered from all of this, though she says her energy levels have never been the same again – ; she used to ride her bike everywhere, but has not been able to since, and feels permanently changed. She has also suffered from Bell’s palsy. Yet it was only in her mid-50s, just a few years ago, that she really believed her time was up.
“I started to have pretty dark suicidal thoughts. I’ve always had bouts of depression, but this was something else entirely. I don’t mind telling you that it was quite frightening, how I felt,” she says, and after a while I realise that this is the first time she has talked about this in public. She says the menopause caused this deterioration in her mental state and while she knew this at the time, she still wanted to die. There seemed no other option to her; HRT wasn’t offered, as it clashed with her other meds.
At the time she was very active on Twitter, even getting close to a couple of strangers she befriended on the site, and to whose children she has since become “Aunty Kathy” after meeting up with them in real life. But behind her funny tweets about kicking out the Tories, she tells me she was hiding a horrible reality. Her main fear became, she says, not even the thought of suicide, but the fact that whoever found her body would be traumatised by it. One of her life mottos is that every problem has a solution – . She says she is one of life’s problem solvers. So, in her darkest hour, she found a solution for her own corpse, too.
“I hit upon the idea of ‘Oh, I’ll go to a nice hotel that’s got a separate bedroom.’ You know, get a suite. Get a suite!” A burst of laughter, as she mocks the grandiosity of her suicide plans, then she is serious again. She speaks very calmly, and seems genuinely at peace with the whole thing now. “And then I would have just left a note on the bedroom door, telling the chambermaid to not come in, get the manager, get the police.” She pauses, exhales. “It was weird, it was sort of, once I’d made that decision, I could relax. You know? And then once I was relaxed… Then the depression started to lift a wee bit.”
Suddenly, Kathy’s podcast is cast in a startlingly different light.
“Oh but I’m so glad I didn’t kill myself during menopause,” she says. “Because that would have been, ‘Well, she killed herself because she was so miserable.’ You know? And to end feeling miserable? That would have been a bit of a shame. But listen, that didn’t happen. I came through the other side, and I’m fucking delighted I did.”
With no specific menopause treatment, she says she simply battled through until her body had come out the other side of it, which took a few years. She has a strong gang of friends and is immensely grateful for them, and for Twitter at that time, too. And then Covid arrived and lockdown, and her curiosity returned. “It’s so strange, because I know the pandemic was horrendous and I do know people who died. But there was a part of me that was sort of… Wasn’t it fascinating to live through this thing?”
And we are soon back on lighter ground again, talking about awards ceremonies, partly because life is for living and she is so interested in living now, but also, as far as I can see, partly because she limits discussion of her own pain. I’m still wondering if she really did only cry because she wanted a Mars bar.
“The other thing I was really glad to witness was the Will Smith slap at the Oscars,” she says. “I know that sounds awful. But, I sort of,” she whispers, “loved it… I mean, it was out of order and he fucked it up for himself more than anybody else. But I just loved seeing the faces of these A-Listers who didn’t know what the fuck to do without an agent telling them!”
Acting didn’t hold her attention for long enough; Burke likes to make the plays and shows herself now. This began after Nil By Mouth, back in the late 1990s, when she both starred in but also created the comedy series Gimme Gimme Gimme, after the BBC approached her to ask what she would like to be in. So she gave the playwright Jonathan Harvey his first TV gig and they wrote it together. At the time, telly was all about inventing likable characters, “and I just wanted to create people who are vile. People you’d avoid in the street. You know, this was the age of ecstasy, people being off their nut on drugs every night. I wanted it to be as base as possible.”
She often seems to have been there at the start of the careers of others in her industry who go on to be huge – she directed James McAvoy in his first London theatre job. “And that was great, because everyone coming to see it was like, ‘Oh my God, who is this guy?’” In 2009 she directed James Corden and Mathew Horne in their TV series Horne and Corden, long before Corden’s huge American success. More recently, she directed Holding, the TV mini-series based on Graham Norton’s novel, for ITV.
“In the past 20 years I’ve done three acting roles. And I might be about to do another one – a small one – which I can’t talk about. Because what I never want to do is be on a film set every fucking day for six weeks as an actor. Most of the time you’re sitting around doing nothing and it’s mind-numbingly boring.” She stopped doing comedy because all the characters had come from a feeling in her belly and as long as that feeling was there, then she could do anything. But the feeling had gone, so she quit.
My romantic side is well and truly over. And it’s lovely. It’s true freedom
I ask about her directing style: is it hard not to boss everyone and be an arsehole? She says absolutely not, that’s never been her style, she values emotional intelligence too much. When she directed a play with “the wonderful actor Mark Bonnar, I remember Mark saying to me: ‘It’s so strange working with you, Kathy. Because it feels like we’re just having a lovely time and we’re not doing any work. He couldn’t work out how it happened.”
She recently had her friend the director Dominic Dromgoole and his “brilliant daughters” round for lunch at her house in Highbury – she only likes socialising in this way now, can’t handle big parties or even funerals, because her ears can’t focus on the person talking to her. Plus, she’s a foodie and loves cooking. So she was asking his eldest child, who had just finished at Cambridge, all about her love life. “And afterwards Dominic messaged me and said she felt awful. She said: ‘Oh my God, Daddy, I didn’t ask Kathy about her love life.’ And I thought that was brilliant. You know, nobody’s asked me about my love life for years! It doesn’t come into it.”
I ask then: How is your love life? “It’s self-love life,” she replies, “that’s what’s going on,” and winks.
I ask if she still agrees with what she once said on Channel 4: “Love is so magnificent, but also the worst thing, like wasps.”
She beams. “Of course! But the good thing is now I’m too old to give a shit about love. You know? That romantic side of me is well and truly over. And it’s, ahhhh, it’s lovely.”
“It is lovely,” she continues, “because for me, it’s the real sense of true freedom. I just think it’s something that is naturally in us humans to sort of want to be with a partner or to be in love, because being in love is so exciting. If it’s a nice love. But the drama of it, when you’re young – that’s all you fucking talk about! Who you are in a relationship with or who you want to be in a relationship with. And then getting older it’s like, ‘Oh my God, that isn’t part of my conversation any more.’”
There are no more pets either – her dog, Shenanigans, died after they had exactly a decade together, while her two cats lived 17 years. “Dave died first of kidney failure. And then Missy lasted an extra month. I just think she thought, ‘Fuck it, I don’t want to be on me own with her, I’ll peg it too.” During lockdown Kathy’s best friend, Tilly, got a kitten and tried to persuade Kathy to get one, too, “Because her kitten had a not-as-pretty sister. I went well fuck that – the ugly one can stay where she is, mate!” So it’s just her in the house now – . She used to have lodgers, but doesn’t want anyone coming home late; the bolt’s on the door at 10pm sharp.
“You know, when you get older, I suppose the real fear of death is that you haven’t done everything you wanted to do. Also pain: what am I gonna get? But there’s something quite lovely about – for me, personally – feeling, well, if I did die tomorrow, it would be fine,” she says, with such poise, such warmth, that it hits me what the most surprising quality on meeting Kathy Burke is. It’s not her opinions or her wit – it’s her gladness.
“Yeah, I had a lot of serious moments, and I’ve got grief and I’ve lost friends and family members. And there has been a lot of sadness,” she says, with that massive twinkle in her eye, the curiosity still there. “But I’ve had a blast. I really do think I’ve had an amazing life.”
Kathy Burke’s Where There’s A Will There’s A Wake is available weekly on all major podcast platforms now
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Hair and makeup by Samuel Johnson using Pat McGrath and Oribe