A DIFFERENT STEP

Steven Berkoff is not a man to take things lying down. So when his autobiography was savaged by the critics, he decided to bite back - and the letters pages have been humming ever since. In a frank interview, he explains why he's been wronged
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BANG! CRASH! That sound of distant thunder is Steven Berkoff on the warpath. He has read the reviews of his new autobiography and - duck if you are a critic - is far from pleased.

Once he issued a death threat (as a joke) to a critic who wrote a bad review of one of his plays. This time his attack is confined to the letters pages of the IoS and the Times Literary Supplement, but it is still pretty hair-raising stuff. The TLS letter started like this:

"Sir, - Where on earth did you dig up that piece of dessicated hack to spew off his frustration and venom from a life of miserable flops? A man barely known except for a feeble book on Cynthia Payne is asked to review my work. Are you totally potty? When you let loose some pathetic lout on his superior, he has the chance, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to vent all the bilious frustration of his unmarked and undesired life..."

Phew! It was like watching Jekyll turn into Hyde, for his autobiography had painted the impression of a gentle soul - tortured, insecure, lonely - not a raging beast, poised for the attack.

Others were more clued up, however. "Tell me how it goes," colleagues said of the interview, with gleeful anticipatory smiles, as if I was off to taunt a bear through the bars of its cage. For Berkoff is not fond of female journalists: his autobiography refers to the "angst-ridden bitches" who have interviewed him in the past. "It seems that merely being female and having inherited the agonies of history and the natural rage that women have to amend the crimes made against them gives every little sourpuss a chance to exercise a taste for sadism..."

He has a hooded and wary politeness as he shows me into his office in the East End, a room as bare as one of his sets, French windows overlooking the gravel fringes of the Thames.

"I suppose you think I am an angst-ridden bitch," I say, and he looks at me in surprise. "No. Why should I?" I remind him of his comment and he says dismissively, "Oh - that was a form of defence." He faces me half in shadow, his powerful chest sheathed in a black T-shirt. "Chrissie Iley [of the Sunday Times] came to Dublin and I thought she was going to do a profile on my life, my work, but she spent a whole page cutting me down and tearing me to pieces. I was very happy to talk to her, and gave her coffee and my plays to read, and I was fed into a human incinerator. It's not my wish to talk about that particular ... creature.

"Then I had this other woman called Lynn Barber [of the Daily Telegraph]. We talked about my thoughts and work and I thought, `Are they here to experience the essence, to describe the emotional, psychological landscape of a human being? Have they read my works? Have they seen them? It's annoying," he says, "to have a second-rate mind set loose upon one's life. Unless you can be a friendly mind. That's all right. You can be a simple mind, a naive mind..."

He believes his bad press stems from the British dislike of those who "tread with a different step". Britain is famous for its sado-masochistic attitude to life, he continues, and its plays obsessed with dying. "It's a bit like flashing, whereas if we had a healthy, strong, Apollonian vision of the arts - our European friends have a more positive attitude, they can generate discussion about areas of life which are powerful, sensitive, sexual, abundant -"

"But your plays don't express the positive," I suggest, and he frowns with annoyance at being interrupted. "What do you mean?" "Well, Greek doesn't," I say, referring to Berkoff's cockney retelling of the Oedipus tale. "It does," he says furiously. "It's about a man who believes the most powerful element of human existence is his love for a woman. Greek is an affirmation of a life force -"

"But it's about a man destined by fate to murder his father and sleep with his mother. That's surely negative," I argue. Berkoff's eyes have darkened to the colour of winter sea over pebbles. "Maybe you have got the wrong writer," he says flatly. Then: "You've not read them. You don't know what you're talking about." He continues in exasperation, voice rising: "It's a minor incident, killing his father, it's not important, it's just a hinge in which the door is opened to another world."

"I'm sorry," I say, retreating like Lenina from the fury of the Savage in Brave New World (whom he increasingly resembles), "we obviously differ -" "No we don't," he snaps. "You don't have a point of view. It's corrupt, it doesn't mean anything."

Outside the Thames laps gently on stones.

I wanted to ask him about the absence of women in his autobiography, for he devotes perhaps a page out of 400 to them, although he has been married twice and has lived with his current girlfriend, the German pianist Clara Fischer, for 12 years. But now he is riled and furious. "Why? Because I'm not a prurient pervert! My love life and sex life are sacred to me. I don't want to just open my fly and flash myself all over the place, but in a prurient society, a perverted society, in a society where the press preys upon garbage like rats in the Thames, they say, `Why is this?' It's my private and personal life. My book was meant to be about the work, life whence it came, its sources, its environment, what provoked it.

"But the press are like vacuum cleaners sucking up dirt from a carpet which is maybe a masterpiece, with wonderful weaving, and instead of looking at the design they suck up the dirt. It's a perverted way of reviewing - it smacks of a kind of superiority, of arrogance, also a lack of love for life, a lack of caring, of seeing."

Some might argue that Berkoff himself smacks of a kind of superiority and arrogance, but the most curious revelation in his autobiography is that he is positively hag-ridden by intellectual inferiority - he left school at 15 and was a clothing salesman for several years. The overarching theme of his book is this insecurity, which he is brave and honest enough to admit to. He recounts at one point how Roy Strong, when he was director of the V&A, came to see him in a 1971 production of The Glass Menagerie. "I was amazed that someone so intelligent should come and see us and me," Berkoff wrote. "But I thought, well, this is my territory and he couldn't play the Gentleman Caller [Berkoff's part]. But I always had to give myself these little directives to enable me to deal with people of obvious education..."

His insecurity has been fostered by the continual rejection he has suffered. Indeed the lingering aftertaste of Berkoff's autobiography is the sadness of it all. Here was a man, it seemed, so sensitive to rejection that it was like a flame held to his soul. Yet again and again he had been rejected; sacked again and again as a salesman by clothing shops in Edgware Road, Hampstead, South Molton Street; rejected again and again by directors when auditioning for parts in his years in rep; while thrumming under it all, throbbed the festering wound of the rejection by his Jewish father, a tailor in the East End.

This hurt is apparent behind the bluster of his letter to the TLS, and in his reaction to other criticism in the press. He admits in his book that he was upset at not being included in a round up of the year's best writers by the critic Irving Wardle. "Who cares, I always say to myself, but some part of me weeps inside, even if the outside is scarred and weathered like old leather." Another telling moment comes when he compares himself to Kafka's Gregor Samsa, who wakes up transformed into an insect: "I become like the bug. An outsider, unloved, given to deep probings and guilt and yet with a sense somewhere of my superiority in pain..."

It was this which kept him afloat in his early years, despite not achieving his ambition of being asked to join a prestigious company such as the RSC, and being cold-shouldered by many in the theatrical establishment (to be fair, he isn't the easiest person to work with). He achieved success in spite of them. No one would employ him as a classical actor, so he put on his own Shakespeare. No one would give him good contemporary parts, so he wrote East, West, Greek and other contemporary classics, hurling his anger and frustration into the texts. He created a company and threw his belief in mime and music and pared-down sets into his own work until, at last, he became a name to conjure with. He has even had parts in Hollywood movies, including Octopussy, Rambo and Beverly Hills Cop. When I went to his impressive production of Coriolanus at the Mermaid last week I saw his name rearing above the door: "STEVEN BERKOFF AS CORIOLANUS by William Shakespeare." My God, I thought, how proud that must make him!

But we are back to the press. He says he is not sorry he wrote the letter to the TLS, claiming, in a little game, that he wasn't serious. "I was having a bit of fun because no one reads the TLS," he says, but then instantly contradicts himself. "I thought I'd write exactly what I felt. There's something very good about that. I never dreamt they'd print it."

It is understandable that Berkoff would take exception to the TLS review (by Paul Bailey), which cleverly worked its way into all the weaknesses of his book, but I found it harder to comprehend his attitude four years ago when he threatened to sue the Independent over a casual (though admittedly untrue) aside, in a piece about picking up women, that the "whole building burst into applause" at the National Theatre when it was announced over the Tannoy that Berkoff's car had been clamped.

When I mention this Berkoff fixes me with a gimlet stare. "I find it hard to understand you," he says eventually. "It was a lie. They tried to suggest that my name is so ... abhorrent that at something as uncomfortable as that the building clapped. It was a total lie. Because I am respected at that building and the show was successful. It is another part of the British fascination with negativism."

Aren't you taking this too seriously? I suggest. But he is not having that. "I take everything seriously. I'm a serious person, not frivolous. Being a performer is a very, very arduous task, demanding energy and precision ... it's not a luvvie's profession, it's closer to an athlete's. After that for somebody to say [he adopts a public school accent], `His cah was clemped and the audience applauded' is utter trash. So I take it very seriously."

There is a pause as he waits, eyes locked on me, while I search for a question which won't annoy him. I choose: "What gives you most pleasure in life?" but at this he sneers wholeheartedly.

"I can't answer such a fat question. You sound like the Daily Mirror." He scoffs in a high voice: " `What gives you the most pleasure in life?' You have to lead in to these kind of questions - this is a bit of a big, ploppy question." "Why is it?" I say, "I like reading, I like listening to music. What gives you pleasure?" "It's a silly question. When you've grown up, ask me grown-up questions.

"To say [he puts on the high voice again], `What gives you pleasure? I like reading books and listening to music.' As if I need your example to answer the question! Everything gives me pleasure! My life gives me pleasure, directing actors, working with them, writing plays, getting up in the morning, finishing a performance, drinking with a friend, travelling, being with my ladyfriend.

"There's not anything which doesn't give me intense pleasure. Writing about it gives me pleasure as well as the thing itself gives me pleasure. As somebody who purports to make a living within the arts, my antennae are stretched to pleasure, to seek and interpret all things. Today's a sunny day, I would like to go swimming in the Thames, that would give me pleasure. All things give me pleasure, I'm a pleasure zone - I wish I had more pleasure in my life."

Funny how some things set him off and others didn't. When I told him he reminded me of the Savage fulminating against the soma-happy society in Brave New World he was curiously soft. "That's very flattering," he said, his eyes lightening at last. "I do feel that sometimes. It's difficult, because the administrators also have to be on a par, so you're battling against showing people how something can be better. It's very difficult..."

Right at the end of the interview I mention Coriolanus and he stiffens - "But you haven't seen it," he snaps. "I have," I reply. "When?" "On Tuesday." "Oh," he says. "That was a good night." And at this he unbends enormously. "You should have said you'd seen it." He is showing me out now and he shakes my hand more kindly. "I'm sorry if I was - brittle." "That's OK," I say, and I mean it. As I step from shadow into fierce sunlight, I am curiously exhilarated. Berkoff is an exceptional man, I think, and despite his bluster, probably greater than most I will meet in my lifetime.

Steven Berkoff's autobiography, `Free Association' (Faber, pounds 15.99), is out now. `Coriolanus' is reviewed on The Critics pages in this week's Real Life section.

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