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English national treasure, actor Kathy Burke (b. 1964), was in foster care for four years as a small child. 

Katherine Lucy Bridget Burke was born in London. Her mother, Bridget, died of cancer when she was just two years old. Kathy spent the next four years living with her neighbours in informal foster care.  

Then, at the age of six, Burke moved in with her Irish father and two brothers. Her father was an alcoholic who died of cancer in 1985. 

It was a difficult time – her father was often out of work and abusive and violent when drunk. But she made her peace with him shortly before he also succumbed to cancer in the 90s (Kathy Burke website).  

The absence of her mother became particularly difficult for Burke as a teen. She explains:

But looking back now, I’m quite proud about how I managed myself. I didn’t end up sniffing glue or running away. I just got on with things” (Mangan). 

When Burke was thirteen, she took up a teacher’s advice to train as an actor at the local Anna Scher Theatre. Just a few years later, Swedish director Mai Zetterling saw Burke on stage and then cast her in the 1982 film, Scrubbers.  

Mai Zetterling, she wouldn’t put up with anything. She grew up in Sweden and the Swedish film industry and didn’t like the way she was treated in Hollywood or here; with people like Peter Sellers and Danny Kaye – she didn’t enjoy the experience. She gave me great advice: ‘You need to be strong. You need to not just be an actress, you should write, you should direct, you need to get power and that’s the only way you’ll get power and some control in your career’ (Marsh).  

In her late twenties, Burke became well-known for her roles on sketch shows including Harry Enfield And Chums and French & Saunders. She began making appearances on celebrity gameshows, and played the role of Magda on the British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. Burke won the Royal Television Society’s Best Actress award in 1993 for her role as Martha in Mr Wroe’s Virgins and Best Comedy Actress for her role as Linda La Hughes in the British sitcom, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme. 

Burke appeared in numerous films during her acting career. Some highlights include Dancing at Lughnasa with Meryl Streep and her role as Queen Mary Tudor in Elizabeth. She won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance as Valarie in Nil by Mouth in 1997. 

Since 2002 Burke has concentrated on directing and producing shows. Her three-part documentary, All Woman, first aired on the BBC in 2019. It explores themes within contemporary womanhood, such as sex, relationships, work, motherhood, and beauty. 

She wanted to create a series of films celebrating rather than denigrating women – even if Burke doesn’t always agree with the choices the subjects make. Take Laura, a young woman who, in the first episode, we see contemplating breast enlargement. “I have always believed that women should be allowed to do what they want to do,” she says. “But I do think people are making a hell of a lot of money out of other people’s insecurities (Davies). 

Burke wrote and directed the 2012 sitcom, Walking and Talking, which is an autobiographical account of her childhood. It is an uplifting story about the daily lives of Kath and her best friend, Mary. Burke explains:

“It’s is not about girls being absolute bitches and being skinnier than each other; it’s about girls who actually care about each other” (Mangan).  

Burke’s most recent project is a two-part documentary about aging called Growing Up (2023). The series allows viewers to spend a few hours in Burke’s amicable company – and sometimes with her celebrity mates – and make us wish we could go to the pub with her and enjoy the fully unleashed version” (Mangan). 


Davies, Hannah. “Kathy burke: ‘after I got sick, the toughest thing was what it did to my mental health.” The Guardian, 7 August 2019. 

Kathy Burke website. 

Marsh, Stefanie. Kathy Burke: “Lifelong member of the non-pretty working classes”, The Guardian, 29 October 2017. 

Mangan, Lucy. “Kathy Burke: Growing Up review – the perfect example of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’”, The Guardian, 9 March 2023. 

Peacock, Caroline. “Who is Kathy Burke and is she married?”, The Sun, 8 March 2023. 

Rapton, James. “Kathy comes home: A new sitcom paints a happier picture of Kathy Burke’s childhood”, Independent, 21 June 2012. 

Image available here.