Positive Profile: the real (Officer) Karen on death, laughter, and Luskentyre

Picture by John Cooper

Glaswegian actor Karen Bartke plays Officer Karen in Scot Squad, the cult BBC mockumentary.  She is also a popular radio and theatre performer, winning several award nominations for her role as Suzy in Tamasha Theatre Company’s highly acclaimed My Name Is….  Karen talks to us about the defining life experience that made her became a more positive person, the joys of playing rock’n’roll, and the importance of seeing the funny side of life.

Are you a naturally positive person?

I think I am now, but I don’t think I was when I was younger. I struggled quite a lot when I was in my 20s – I think I was terribly concerned about what other people thought of me and I was trying desperately to be liked by everybody, and putting a lot of pressure on myself.

When a friend of mine suffered the bereavement of her mum, and we had all been very close to her, I think that was one of the defining moments where I came to the conclusion that life is just too short to get worked up about things I don’t have any control over. And I was missing out on a lot of stuff because I was too busy trying to figure out how to be everything to everybody.

Once that happened, I became much more content in myself, which I think has made me a much more positive person subsequently. Her death made me realise it’s more important to be nice to people and then move on because there is nothing you can do about the way people respond – the important thing is you need to be the best version of yourself that you can be, and then let everything else go.

Have you been pleased with the audience response to Scot Squad?

Massively. People have been so nice about it. I am absolutely chuffed to bits that people like the show, and they like the dynamic between myself and Darren Connell (Bobby). I think it’s because it has a nice heart ultimately. It’s funny but it’s not being nasty about anyone – the whole show is gentle and grows because people are fond of all the characters, which I am absolutely thrilled to bits about.

I was nervous before we started, about whether the police would think we were taking the mickey out of them. I have a huge amount of respect for the police – it’s a really hard job – so I was really concerned because I didn’t want them to think we were ripping the arse out them, and I have been thrilled to bits that they like it, that they feel as if we understand some of the pressures that come with being a police officer and also that it can be funny and they are just people, and they are nice, and they are just doing their job. So I have been delighted with it.

How did you develop the character of Officer Karen? Was she inspired by anyone?

She wasn’t inspired by anyone in particular. What I was thinking initially was about that person who is very good at their job but a bit verbose, and that was where it started from. But everything else really came from Darren, and responding to him. In my head, I had it that Officer Karen really thinks she is good at her job and she is trying to do her very best, and that’s why she is so patient with him. The best of it is that it has come entirely from responding to what Darren is doing – he is so funny and so lovable as a character and a really, really nice guy in person. I love spending time with him and I don’t find it difficult at all for Officer Karen to be patient and be willing to deal with Bobby. I wouldn’t be able to throw him out because he’s just a wee sweetheart, really!

How does improvising for TV work?

The writers all work on creating scenarios and we also pitch ideas if we have any scenarios that we think might be fun. Each of the sketches is improvised so the amount of information we get varies with each sketch. Sometimes it will be quite detailed and other times it will be quite a small amount of information and then we just start filming and see what comes out.

What are the difficulties or pressures of improvisation?

I think because you don’t know what is going to come out, you are always a bit worried that it might just not be funny. It can be affected by your mood or even if you have slept well enough. I think because the show has become more popular, the better the previous series was, the more pressure there is for the next series – if we do any more – because you don’t want it to ever slide backwards. After the first series, before we started filming the second series, I was lying awake thinking, “but what if it isn’t any better”, because there was a slight fear that even if it was on a similar level, people would be disappointed. So it feels like every season has to up its game.

Will there be a season four?

I don’t know what will happen about another series, it is entirely up to the BBC. I could do more, I would love to come back and see what else we could do with it, I know Darren would and I imagine the rest of the cast would too, but it is totally in the hands of the BBC commissioning gods.

What are the challenges of being a full-time actor?

Funnily enough, a couple of my actor friends and I were talking about this recently – there will be days when you just really start to panic, about whether or not you will work, whether or not you will be able to pay bills, just about everything, and often for me that tends to happen when I have a lot of work on! Those are the days I wake up really sweating and I think, “well, what happens if I don’t get any more, what happens if this is the last of it”, which can be challenging.

I’m really fortunate that I have lots of supportive friends and family – they’re really pleased for me and really proud of me for what has happened for me so far, so that is a huge support. When I have those days, what I find useful is to sit down and think, “well what can I do practically to help that”, or I keep myself active doing things about the house.

Not pinning my hopes on what might happen but what is happening is really helpful. I try to see downtime as a useful thing that frees me up to improve my house or learn something. Speaking to other people who are in the same field really helps as well, being able to share that and knowing I am not the only person who feels that way.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

There have been loads of highlights, most of it so far has been a highlight! When I started out, I had a day job and I had the opportunity to take redundancy in 2010 – I had been doing little bits of acting work for a long time and I’d always wanted to be an actor but never had the balls, frankly. I kept thinking: “One day, one day, once I’ve paid off my mortgage, once I’ve done this, once I’ve done that, I’ll have a go.” When the opportunity to take the redundancy came up, that was a highlight because it was like getting a chance to have the life I wished I had – it meant I had a little financial security for a while because I had my redundancy money to fall back on.

At the time, I gave myself six months to see how I got on and if it didn’t work out I was going to get a day job and that would be fine. To get to that six months and say, “OK, I can keep going for another few months”, every time I passed another threshold was a real highlight. Seeing Scot Squad go out was a massive highlight; The BBC Audio Drama Awards was a massive highlight even though I was a bit drunk [laughs] – I had an absolutely hilarious night and then was very embarrassed when I woke up because lots of really famous people saw me quite drunk on Prosecco!

The Tamasha Theatre Company play My Name Is… was a big highlight. I was so pleased that it went well, I was really proud to be a part of that and meeting people who had really been inspired to think a lot more about their attitudes towards Islam and to other cultures and religions. When (author) Neil Gaiman retweeted me I saved it in a sentimental folder! [laughs]. There have been loads of things.

Do you still perform with your rock’n’roll band The Sentinels?

I do! We recently did a gig for the Pantheon Club, an amateur theatre group in Glasgow I joined many years ago and was a member of for a long time, so it was very special. It was where our band had originated as well. It was quite an honour being there to play for them on their 90th anniversary. I thoroughly enjoyed it and got to play my cowbell!

How important do you think it is to laugh every day?

I think it is hugely important. Judi Dench once said: “It is important to take your job seriously but not yourself seriously,” and I agree that that is absolutely crucial. I think a really big, loud vent of laughter just solves a lot of problems and I think seeing the funny side is so important. Sometimes life is really rubbish and horrible things happen, and you can’t change that, but you can change how you respond to it.

What song instantly puts you in a good mood?

I’m always very partial to Sweet Home Alabama. I think it’s very hard not to be cheered up when you hear that. Also Daniel Powter’s Bad Day, and anything by The Muppets!

What are your top three joys in life that make your day?

There are lots of things…I really like a cup of coffee in the morning, I really like looking out the window and seeing all the different kinds of weather, whether it’s a beautiful day, the lashing rain or the wind blowing the trees…and I love food. It’s my great vice. My mum will make me dinner and I will sit down and love every mouthful of it

Do you have a favourite spot in Scotland?

There is a place that is not very easy to get to, called Luskentyre on the Isle of Harris, which I went to when we were touring My Name Is… after we played in Stornoway, which is where the real-life mum and daughter were living when the events in the play happened. Luskentyre beach is the most stunning, gorgeous beach with beautiful white sand – apparently they use it quite often as a substitute for Thailand when they are filming adverts. I find being by the water really peaceful in general.

What do you do to relax?

I watch television, I read, I sometimes like to go for a drive to nowhere in particular. My mum and I will go round the shops and have a cup of coffee and cake. I also like to file things… I’m a bit OCD so I like to put things neatly in order…that’s one of my secret joys!

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