Steven Berkoff: Rise of an 'up and coming nobody'

Steven Berkoff may be among the most acclaimed playwrights and actors of his generation but he revealed he would much rather have been a tailor, like his father, given a choice between the two.

Speaking intimately about his early life, living among the Jewish diaspora of the early 20th century in the East End of London and experiencing the Blitz during the Second World War, he likened his craft to the work of his aloof father.

"I knew I wanted to be a tailor if I had the skills, but my father didn't teach me. It would have been much nicer to be a tailor than an actor. In a way, playwriting is like tailoring, it's like making a suit of words."

Berkoff, aged 73, who was discussing his childhood with The Independent's John Walsh at the Woodstock Literary Festival yesterday, said he had finally decided to write about this early period. He describes his experience of poverty and immigration – and his stint in a juvenile delinquency centre in Oxford, where he was "cruelly abused and beaten" – in his recently published autobiography, Diary of a Juvenile Delinquent.

Rising from a working-class, immigrant, Ukrainian-Jewish family and being an "up and coming nobody", he said that winning his drama scholarship at 16 was beyond his imagination. "It was the first thing I had ever been given," he added.

He also revealed his distant relationship to an indifferent father, which filled him with an enduring sense of disappointment in adult life.

"Maybe family life didn't suit him, but when I came along he didn't seem to have a great deal of affection. Because children adore their dads and see other dads playing with their children, you think your dad will do that, but he rarely wanted to do anything. Maybe we went once or twice to the cinema, once to the theatre and the pool," he said.

Berkoff explained how his Romanian-born father would "find fault with me very quickly as a child".

"I never had anything. He never gave me anything. In later life, I found it very difficult to treat myself.

"I can't wear a watch that costs more than £30. I have intrajected him. But what a virtue – because I always respected money."

What's on when at Woodstock

Today

The Ultimate Read: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Howard Jacobson, 11am

Val McDermid talks to David Freeman, 11am

Philip Pullman in conversation with Martin Jennings, 2pm

Dame Lynne Brindley talks to Stephen Glover, 4pm

Rupert Thomson talks to Boyd Tonkin, 5:30pm

Saturday

Marcus Berkmann and Angus Fraser on the Ashes, 9.30am

An Introduction for Children to the Art of Picasso, 10.30am

Michael Frayn, 12pm

Andrew O'Hagan talks to Sarah Crompton, 4.30pm

Political Scandals and Conspiracies: David Aaronovitch, Kevin Maguire and Paul Staines, 5pm

Sunday

Adam Sisman: Hugh Trevor-Roper, and the Feud with Evelyn Waugh, 11am

Daisy Goodwin talks to Simon Kelner, 11am

Lady Antonia Fraser talks to James Walton, 12.30pm

Colin Dexter, 2pm

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Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

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