Steven Berkoff: Rise of an 'up and coming nobody'
Friday 17 September 2010
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."
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Adam Sisman: Hugh Trevor-Roper, and the Feud with Evelyn Waugh, 11am
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