The trick is to survive

Fame first knocked on Bernard Kops's door 40 years ago but she's been been a long time coming back. Now, with a new play in London and a Hollywood script under way, it seems that at 70 he has survival down to a fine art.
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Bernard Kops knows a thing or two about that "bitch goddess, Success". He's had awards and accolades since the publication of his first play, The Hamlet of Stepney Green, when he was 30. Now he's 70, with over 24 plays and a huge body of poetry, fiction and radio drama behind him. His plays are performed all over the world. He has several new works near completion on the PC. Life is great.

So, why is the "bitch goddess" currently gloating around the study of his West Hampstead home? Because his stage play, Playing Sinatra, is being made into a film, that's why - with Mia Farrow (the ex-Mrs Sinatra, no less) lined up to star. People will soon be mentioning Bernard Kops in the same breath as Jack Rosenthal and Harold Pinter - and rightly so. But he's too wise to be over-impressed, I discover. Success has spoilt too many of his creative friends, dead and living.

I met Kops last week at Stables Market, Camden Town, where his play Dreams of Anne Frank was in rehearsal for last night's opening. He'd risen at five o'clock, put in several hours' writing, taken his granddaughter to school, phoned agents, students and friends, and enjoyed his daily walk on Hampstead Heath with Erica, his wife and muse of 40 years. And that was just the morning's schedule. The afternoon's work can flow, seamlessly, into an evening of teaching. He has more energy than most men one third his age.

"Maybe I go against the common perception that you wind down when you're 70," he says, amused. "But there's no concept of retirement in my world. The trick is to survive, and that survival energy came to me with mother's milk."

Survival, and all it implies, is at the heart of Bernard Kops's work. His family were Dutch Jews, who fled from Amsterdam to settle in the East End during the war. He was one of seven children, nurtured in the bosom of his family, who were mad, warm, funny and poverty stricken.

His childhood memories are of contracting rickets and burning old shoes for warmth, between being loved to death by his sisters. He realised how much he loved life, however desperate, when a Dutch cousin who escaped Belsen described the horror of seeing relatives dragged off to the gas chambers.

The Holocaust was his River Styx, its vile images gushing into his writing. "It can be a burden, belonging to a minority and being persecuted," he says. "Sometimes you think I'm just sick of being Jewish." But he admits that "the matrix of your childhood is the stuff of your life".

When he was commissioned five years ago to write a play about Anne Frank something clicked. The right man had come to the right material at the right time. The result, Dreams of Anne Frank, is a tragi-comic expressionist music play that one reviewer called when it first opened a "virtuoso handling of dream logic".

"What fascinated me about Anne Frank was her isolation within the family. She has become an incredible icon, perhaps the foremost icon of this era. But as her father, Otto Frank, said, he would gladly have the diary unwritten if it saves the life of one child."

With the support of the Anne Frank Foundation, he took the production to Hungary to be performed by Romany Gypsy children. Bernard has since begun a crusade to work with the gypsies, to articulate their history by building a gypsy theatre and artist class. His new play, Cafe Zeitgeist, about the marriage between a Jew and a Gypsy, will tour Budapest later this year.

"I first met the gypsies in Spain, 40 years ago. I had read Garcia Lorca on deepsong and flamenco, and traced the Romanies' origins. They were terribly persecuted: the civil guard bumped them off at random. A quarter of a million gypsies were killed in the Holocaust. They were struggling on society's fringes, but their spirit was amazing. They struck me as the most fascinating people, so vibrant and alive."

In Hungary he found himself directing children who didn't know one end of a play from another - but who understood and responded to the music, a natural aspect of his work. Joan Littlewood, founder of Stratford East, recognised immediately that Bernard was following a legacy of traditional Jewish theatre, of breaking into song.

"Now I realise that it came from my mother, who was a Dutch cockney," he says. "When things got too much for her, because of desperation or happiness, she would sing herself through it." He has just completed a commissioned musical on Garibaldi, Risorgimento.

The exploits of his early life are chronicled in The World Is a Wedding, his autobiography of 1963. It takes us, with the emotional seesaw audacity of a picaresque hero, through the poor childhood, the Blitz, drugs and Soho cafe society, breakdown and salvation in the shape of Erica and children. The director Mike Leigh apparently uses it as a "tool" - although a tool for what is unclear.

What is clear is that Bernard's extravagant passion, his Sturm und Drang, may have been too romantic, too naive and generous, for the cynical, hard, self-obsessed l980s. The fin-de-siecle has brought his virtues into perspective.

A peak of popularity finds its apotheosis in Playing Sinatra. The award- winning three-hander will be produced by London Films, whose chief executive is Morgan Mason, the son of James Mason the movie star, and is being adapted for the screen by Bernard himself. As Pinter's play The Caretaker was sparked when he glimpsed two men in a room, so Playing Sinatra had its genesis with two people in a room.

"I went to dinner at a friend's. He and his sister were playing Frank Sinatra all evening. They had one eye on the spaghetti pan, the other on the record player. When I left, I said to Erica, that's my next play.

"The characters aren't Jewish, but they are intensely close, and people seem to identify with that. Everyone's much closer today. You don't think twice about seeing men kiss each other in the street. Even the English touch each other, which was unheard of."

Playing Sinatra is not about incest per se, but there's a whiff of it in Norman's obsession with his sister, Sandra. "But then lots of family love is incestuous," says Bernard. "My teens were Oedipal. I could not envisage touching my mother, physically. But I remember the smell of her hair, which was important. And I was obsessed with her." And did he want to kill his father? "Oh yes, many a time. Who doesn't?"

His humour is as innate as his clear blue eyes. I've known Bernard for just a few years, and I've always thought of him as the sorcerer. He conjures words, and seals the spell with frequent quotes from Blake, Shakespeare, TS Eliot, Wilde, the Bible - but mostly himself. I've watched him teach in his study, his craggy, noble profile echoed by the iron busts sculpted by his son, Adam. Always dominating the proceedings, he aims his forefinger like a harpoon at a student, yelling "Bad! Exposition!" or "Good! Revelation!" - sometimes followed by an apologetic "I wasn't too hard on you, was I?"

Like Saul Bellow, he teaches for personal nourishment. "Teaching is learning. I get back this wonderful feeling that life has meaning. Fascism is the exact opposite - you punch someone because life has no meaning and you want to provoke a reaction. My way is to do with ecstasy or love, opening doors for people and seeing them light up."

He joined the Communist Party at 18, left soon after, and says he's been an anarchist ever since. There can be no greater champion of the multiracial society. "Immigration creates a vibrant society. All the restless people emigrate, the dull ones stay at home. If my father hadn't moved us from Holland to the East End, we would have been on that train to Auschwitz."

We discuss the recent anti-racism festival in Hackney and how its equivalent 20 years before had seemed fervent and rousing by comparison. "In many ways, perhaps the battle is won. A lot of the racism has been resolved because of the comprehensive system of schooling. You go to a town like Chichester, and it's still old England. But I find that London is wonderfully changed for the better."

But not Soho, his stomping ground in the 1960s, when he smoked dope in the Partisan Cafe and hung out with Jack Spot, a colleague of the Krays. "Old Compton Street wasn't tarted up as it is now. It was full of whores, bohemians, bums, criminals, painters and writers. It was a place of incredible energy.

The criminal fraternity, outsiders by necessity as much as choice, were as fascinating to him as the gypsies. "I find the difference between criminality and creativity is razor edge - I could have gone either way myself. As a writer, I've done many stints inside prisons and been amazed by the creativity there. I was in a room in Wormwood Scrubs with eight murderers once and they were... well, like the students I used to teach at the City Lit, really. They wanted to express something."

He remembers the protest marches he joined with fellow writers and directors, such as Lindsay Anderson, Doris Lessing, John Arden, Arnold Wesker, and how he became wary of the "coterie effect". "I did not want to belong to any movement. In many ways it's been lonely and difficult, but so be it." He worked with Wesker on a project to "bring art to the masses", and felt ambivalent about that, too. "We were descending on a community and giving them art, when their art was football... I felt it was all a bit patronising."

He rails against the dumbing down of culture in the Tarantino age, and favours Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray - "Pather Panchali [Ray's first film] had a tremendous effect on me. To see that family trying to survive against all the odds" - as his supreme storytellers. It's not surprising then, that he turned down commercial work, such as Coronation Street and Minder. He cared about money, but not that much. "I never learnt to hack. If I had, I might have gone off the rails."

Success didn't make John Osborne happy, he observes. He died a bitter man, consumed by negativity. It didn't do a lot for Colin MacInnes, either, although he had a good time going down. Success? The jury's still out, he says. "I look out of the back window and see my grandchildren playing and Erica sitting under a tree. What else is there? Work and family are the spine of my life. I don't know who I would be without them. Life is about struggle. Success has only ever been about how one can survive well and beautifully, between birth and death"n

`Dreams of Anne Frank', Stables Antique Market, London NWI, to 16 Aug (0171-344 4444). An exhibition, `Anne Frank: A History for Today', runs to 27 Aug. Bernard Kops will give a talk about the making of his play at Stables Market, 6pm, 6 Aug