Steven Berkoff: “I began to hate authority… and that has never left me”

Steven Berkoff is an acting legend and a visionary playwright. In his candid Letter To My Younger Self, he talks about a magical journey to New York as a child, his incarceration in a brutal juvenile home at 15, and how his 'ridiculous fantasy' of being in the movies came true

I was born just before the Second World War broke out, and when it did I was swiftly evacuated to the English country town of Luton. This is where I developed and grew, away from the filthy, warbattered slums of Whitechapel where we were living. I swam daily in the openair lido, collected conkers in autumn which shone like gems, and loved my country life.  

When I was 10I entered this fantastic world which was more bizarre than even Alice could have experienced in Wonderland. Mum had plans to join her brothers and sisters who had emigrated to New York, so we drove to Southampton. As I exited the car, I saw this gigantic grey wall. What was it?Some mysterious massive building? The penny dropped, it was a magnificent ship, the first Queen Elizabeth. I had never seen anything like it in my young life. This was the template against which any future experience would be measured. After five days of this magical journey, we docked in Manhattan at Pier 93. The skyscrapers were like hallucinogenic monsters to my young eyes and I stood on deck in the misty dawn totally hypnotised. I had reached the climax of my young life. I had arrived in paradise.

Everything intrigued me. And I seemed to intrigue everyone. They were fascinated by my accent. We were housed in a bit of a slum but it couldn’t have mattered a fig to me because I was in paradise. I went to PS70 – Public School 70 – and the curriculum was so behind the UK that I could catch up with the algebra and geometry, which had baffled me in England. Every morning we would gather in the auditorium and pledge allegiance to America, my new, adopted, wonderful world. I was in love with hot dogs, sauerkraut and mustard for 12 cents, my daily diet. But this idyll was to end after three months when my father gave up – he didn’t have the guts to go through with it in his middle age. So we had to return to the horror of bombblasted London.   

It was 1947, the snow was thick on the ground, I had to share a bed with my cousin Barry. I fascinated my classmates at primary school, wearing the smart American suit my cousin bought me in New York while they were still wearing shabby short pants. They gave me the nickname Spiv. I sat the 11 Plus and won a scholarship to Raine’s Foundation Grammar School. I was recovering my pride in the smart uniform. I loved the school and the traditions but hated the corporal punishment for trivial misdemeanours like talking too much in class. I was given three hard strokes of the cane. No one had ever struck me before or inflicted such painful agony. I had three large red welts on my backside. From where I was in paradise, now I was in hell. From that day something changed in me. I began to hate authority with a venom, and that has never left me.

I had all these friends but they were all over 40. I was looking for a father figure

I knew at 14 that my destiny was to become an actor. But I had no idea of the routes into it. It wasn’t a workingclass profession. But I had this fantasy. I wanted to be in the movies. I wanted to explore the world. I wanted to be an American – that was my obsession. I loved Marlon BrandoWe had three cinemas nearby so I lived through the fantasy of that world. The movies was all we had. And since I knew I was going to be in the movies, I didn’t care what I did when I left school. I had ambition but no skill. I wanted something that would take me back to that feeling of euphoria I felt in America. So I had to do something that would enable me to be rich enough to buy a seat on a ship and go back to New York. 

I had a run-in with the law because I had no values and no inspiration. Maybe my father didn’t have time because he was trying to make a living himself, but all I needed was someone to give me aspirational thinking. I left school before my 15th birthday and not one teacher at the second-rate slum of a school I had moved to – a secondrate dosshouse called Groves – asked what I would like to do. Nobody gave me a clue about anything, so I left school clueless and got in trouble. They put me in a juvenile home when I was 15. It was so awful. There were freezing showers in the punishment block, which of course they put me in. It was the nastiest place in the world. Eventually the government closed them down. They were too brutal.  

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I would tell my younger self that whatever you dream about, do not compromise on it for a second. Don’t give in to a lesser dream. I might have compromised if my dad had taught me to become a tailor. I would have had an occupation, a trade, and I’d have been proud. But I had my dream. I couldn’t talk to young people, but older people would take to me because of my ridiculous fantasy of being in the movies. I had all these friends but they were all over 40. I was looking for a father figure. And I loved having an audience!

I went to the City Literary Institute in Holborn and as soon as I walked in I made the connection to that inner light inside me I felt looking out at Manhattan. That sense of euphoria. I thought, Now I am back. There were evening institutes for men and women who had lost their moment. You could get a taste of what you had lost. I auditioned for drama school in Kensington and the director suggested I apply for a scholarship. I didn’t know you could do such things. It was all new to me so I wrote to the council and they asked what qualifications I had. I looked at this form and felt hopeless, but I wrote back and told them my life up until then. And I told them that I’d left school at 15 and had 100 jobs in the next five years and been a juvenile delinquent. I told them I’d had the worst life but my passion was huge. But I did my audition and they gave me a grant, paid my accommodation and a weekly salary. I have been grateful to the council ever since. Because even now drama schools are out of reach for so many people.  

Suddenly my dream as a 10yearold was fulfilled. Here I was, in Hollywood… going off to work with Eddie Murphy

What would please my younger self is that I was able to crawl out of that muddy, god-awful, wretched trench and manage to make something of my life by being absolutely, scrupulously honest. I could have made up stories, I could have said I had been to university. But I was completely candid. I hoped they might be shocked but appreciate my honesty. And they did. 

There have been so many roles my younger self would be proud of, but when I left drama school at 22, it was hard to get a job. It was very exciting to do repertory theatre, and some of the plays were marvellous.We have the greatest playwrights in the world, with Shakespeare being my favourite. But I decided the next stage was to do it myself. I wanted to write my own plays. My younger self would say, good on you! I drew on my entire life. I wrote about my youth but in a poetic way, in verse, so it wouldn’t be crude. East became one of the most famous workingclass plays of the century. It was poetic, moving, barbaric and naughty but also inspirational. When I had written about 30 plays, I got a publisher, Faber & Faber. They didn’t want me at first, but Pete Townshend said to them: Are you effing mad? This guy is writing the most exciting drama, you must have him! He was very supportive.  

I wanted to create a new vision for the theatre, because what I was seeing was worthy but totally unexciting. I saw the great actors, Paul Scofield, John Gielgud and Olivier, but it was unexciting. So I went on a summer course to Paris to study the art of mime and movement. British theatre had nothing to do with movement. The directors were helpless and had to employ a movement director. But I learnt to do it myself. 

It was so exciting to go to LA. I went out to do my play Decadence [in 1984], which had been successful in London – outrageous, bizarre, and entirely in verse. I did a movie of it with Joan Collins [in 1993] and she was awfully good. In LA this small-time producer put us into a little fringe theatre but I was seen by a movie director who thought I would be spot on to play Victor Maitland in Beverly Hills Cop. So suddenly my dream as a 10yearold was fulfilled. Here I was, in Hollywood, being picked up from my hotel and going off to work with Eddie Murphy. We got on terribly well. And when he improvised, I was very happy to improvise back. So I would tell my younger self, dreams do come true.    

Steven Berkoff’s adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart is available on DVD from June 11 and digitally via Apple, Amazon and Google Play in subsequent weeks