Kathy Burke:
Act Ends

She’s high profile on Twitter, directing for stage and now the voice of a new CBeebies star. But don’t expect Kathy Burke to return to acting

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You know those actors who seem to be in everything? Kathy Burke is not one of those. Despite critically acclaimed roles in comedies such as Absolutely Fabulous and Gimme Gimme Gimme, and dramatic performances in films such as Nil By Mouth, which won her a Palme D’or for Best Actress in 1997, Burke metes out her on-screen appearances and bestows her talents on the public on her terms alone. Now she’s back on our screens, although you may not know it, because she’s the voice behind the pink and purple monster Miss Grizzlesniff in the CBeebies pre-school programme School Of Roars.

“It was something I’ve always wanted to do,” says Burke of her new role in the animated series, which follows five little monsters as they experience school for the first time, and which also includes the vocal talents of Sherlock’s Andrew Scott and Happy Valley’s Sarah Lancashire. Burke admits to being curious to see if the “little humans in her life”, the children of her friends, will recognise her voice when they watch the programme.

“The one thing I didn’t have to worry about was rent money because it was affordable.”

It’s a role that suits Burke, who gave up acting entirely for a few years to focus on theatre directing. “One of the things I stopped enjoying was all the costume and make-up,” she explains. “With this I could turn up in my pyjamas if I wanted to.” Though she is quick to stress, with a gravelly laugh, that she doesn’t “actually do this” when she goes to production company’s Dot to Dot studios for the script recordings.

School of Roars is not Burke’s first role as a teacher. In the self-penned comedy Walking and Talking she played one of two nuns at a Catholic school. The series, and the short film it sprang from, were semi-autobiographical – focusing on Burke’s early teenage years. The nuns in question were actually based on her father’s “grumpy personality and his lovely personality. You never quite knew which you were going to get.”

Is there a chance that more parts of her life could be explored on screen? It’s not a possibility Burke absolutely discounts, but, she says, “it’s not something I like to go back to. I mean, on paper my childhood sounds very bleak, but I really focus on the good.” By bleak Burke means that her mother died when she was two and, after four years being brought up by neighbours, she went to live with her alcoholic father. Looking back though, Burke sees a positive aspect of her childhood in the freedom that her situation afforded her.

“I wasn’t really kept an eye on the way I should have been if my mum had been there so I used to go off and do what I wanted. I look back and I’ve got really happy memories of my freedom, going off with my own imagination, spending a lot of time in the library, for example.”

The freedom extended to watching the kind of television that she might not have been able to watch if her mother had been alive. “Dad had a sort of relaxed attitude to television, feeling that it was quite educational, as long as you watched BBC. I watched the Play for Todays, things like that.”

A desire to get into acting followed. She applied for a place at the Anna Scher Theatre school when she was 13. “There was no audition. You just had to put your name down and wait.”

Her patience paid off and at the age of 15 she got a place. “It was 20p a lesson, and then when you got older it was 50p. It was fantastic, it changed my life.”

The other thing that Burke attributes to her development was the fact that she was a council tenant until she was 29, first with her dad, and then moving into her own council flat. “That, more than anything, helped me. The one thing I didn’t have to worry about was rent money because it was affordable. I just don’t know how young people can do it now.

Miss Grizzlesniff
“Something I’ve always wanted to do.” Burke voices Miss Grizzlesniff in CBeebies School Of Roars

“This is why I’m not as down on things like reality television as other people. Love or loathe them they are the way in for people who aren’t rich. Look at Jennifer Hudson, who’s a judge on The Voice. She’s just a working-class girl who got onto American Idol, and now her whole life has changed. She won an Oscar, and she’s admired and respected, and we wouldn’t know who she was [if it hadn’t been for that show].”

Another facet of popular culture that Burke enjoys is social media. She’s an avid tweeter.

“It reminds me of punk, Twitter, because you can just scream and shout and say what you want, to a certain extent. I like the fact that if some horrible racist bastard tweets something, I can tell them to fuck off. It’s just lovely.”

One of the next projects Burke’s got planned is a return to theatre directing, working with Peep Show co-creator Sam Bain on his first play. But during the last few years Burke has popped up in a variety of roles on the small and big screen, including an appearance as Connie Sachs in the 2011 film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Was her current role in School of Roars part of a slow but sure return to acting?

“Oh no!” says Burke, brutally dashing hopes with one exclamation. “Those parts just came along really. Tinker Tailor was a bit of a surprise because Tomas Alfredson, the director, he’d done a movie a few years before called Let The Right One In, which I really loved. I said to my agent if this guy ever gets in touch then I’m interested, not thinking that it would happen.”

But about four years later it did happen, when Alfredson asked Burke to take up the role in the spy thriller. “I couldn’t really go back on it, could I?” And, she says, Alfredson turned out to be her kind of director.

“If you got more than two takes you were lucky,” she explains about working with the Swedish film-maker. “That can make other actors very nervous, but that’s music to my ears because the quicker you get it done, the quicker you go home.”

Main photo: Rankin Photography Ltd

School Of Roars is on CBeebies now and available on iPlayer

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