WORDS OF THE WEEK; The perfect kiss-off: flattery, then the boot

Steven Berkoff, right, has been reading a selection of short stories on Radio 4. This is an extract from `The Agent', a bleak tale about an actor who cannot find work
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So, he would forget that they were agent and client and write a letter as a human being. No attacks or accusations or complaints but just a simple and moving epistle of frankness. Yes - he would bare his heart.

"Dear Michael, you know that once I was considered a unique actor" - no, strike that - "a very good actor" - no, that's too soft - "an actor of great promise" - no, that's too youthful. It should be something more of a confessional about life and times; the difficulties, the strains, the hopes. Basically how we need each other - we should speak more, have a glass of wine together, talk about our hopes, aspirations and dreams. Share them like a picnic. We should talk about how we all inhabit a small world, and how we people this little world ...

H thought of penning such a letter. But something in him knew that in this bitter, cynical age such emotional gestures might be construed as cringing begging. What he feared, above all, was mockery.

THE AGENCY was a factory for the face that fits; the type, the sex - forget about acting for now. They might not even have time to read your missive, but there it was, taking seed in their minds, waiting to be born.

They want to lop him off the tree, but they haven't got the guts, or indeed the decency, to say it. They expect that, just by their silence, (the low ethics of the yellow gutless coward), they'll signal it to the actor.

Silence; only silence. and each day's silence adds weight to the day before and you, Harry, are expected to construe in this silence a message saying, "we have no need of your services nor feel we can help you in any way". That's what it is meant to say.

But it also says, "The pool is over-full. You haven't earned a penny for us in years and each second that you spend abusing our secretaries costs us money. In fact you are a liability. In fact you don't even merit the cost of a letter. And since I am the king of sleaze-agents I can do anything. Morality, ethics, values, and human decency don't rule me. The markets guide me, and you are worthless. So take off."

THAT'S WHAT H thought. And each day - each hour - the pain of the drum beating into his brain concussed him. If only it didn't all matter so much.

Why did it? Surely he might find another agent who respected his artistry. He had often considered it. Was it the rejection itself that hurt? Were the roots long and deep? Perhaps they led back to a father who neglected him as a youth and poured scorn on his attempts to become an actor

The next day he sat down and made a list of other leading managements he would not be ashamed to be with. He rang them one at a time, but the replies were all curiously similar. They said that they admired his work, but that unfortunately their books were full. They added that it wouldn't be fair to him to take him on without being able to give the kind of sensitive handling and time he deserved. Thus the perfect kiss-off - flattering you while giving you the boot!

However, after a week of phoning and polite, respectful rejections, H came to the conclusion that, although he believed his talents were indeed unique, exceptional and original, they were just not suited for this quotidian world of predictable roles and simplistic characterisations. He was not going to crawl to the third-division agents from whence he had begun his arduous climb upwards 30 years ago. No, it would be too ignominious to have one's name in the actor's directory with your credits listed underneath a third-class agent. This would suggest, by implication, that you, Harry, were a third-class actor! No. Never.

BUT THERE was one agent left who, he had no doubt, would understand his gifts. H had, at various times in the past, considered him. But, like all really good actors, he'd never felt quite ready - or, for that matter, worthy. Now he was considering the possibility once again. Whereas before it had been pure fantasy, and self-dramatisation, circumstances were now gently nudging him to more realistic solutions. He was out on a plank, and was being pushed, albeit gradually. He could look down and see, far below, the writhing limbs of the unemployed actors who were drowning in the agonies of their frustration. Exhausted, swimming from rock to rock, seeking solace in small jobs, and then being washed away by the sheer force of the mass behind them.

Was H ready to jump back into that throng? Was he ready to eke out a life as a player of bits and pieces - the odd telly work, or jobs teaching louts at some dreadful drama school? Their interest in the art of classical speech was minimal compared to their fantasies of starring as gun-toting serial killers.

As a young actor he was no less devoted than a priest to the cloth and, while not exactly a celibate, had never really fanned deep relationships. In lonely and meditative moments, he gave the instability of his profession as his excuse. And, anyway, he wanted nothing to interfere with his goal of being a servant of the classics.

In the early days his light was seen to shine in some of the major reps. He drew many admirers of his dazzling Petruchio, his satanic Macbeth, his sensitive Richard II.

But the temptation to earn money in long West End runs of thrillers, reduced the glow somewhat. It was only the lack of more classical roles that made this fall from grace necessary.

ALL THIS explains this devotee's lack of a wife or family. They would have made demands on his love and energy, which would temper the single- minded and obsessive drive which the gods demand before their gifts will be bestowed. But he had to admit that his devotion was to a rather tough god. This god was one which reminded him of his father and really had, as yet, rewarded him with nothing except isolation. Perhaps one carries the father patterns like a tape within one, and in some inevitable way constructs one's own rejection.

Consequently, it will be perceived that the agents' neglect of the simple dues of respectful behaviour, which might have earned contempt in a healthy body, opened in Harry a wound a mile wide. Into it flew every doubt he ever had. He felt he was in a void.

But the one agent he had resisted would without doubt take him on to his books - as he does eventually with everyone. For none shall escape him. Being methodical, as behoves bachelor actors, H made his will and settled his affairs. Then, in an act that had a touch of theatricality about it, he calmly threw himself under a train at Leicester Square Tube.

THIS WAS a tad uncharacteristically thoughtless of H. It must have demonstrated the stress he was under.

For, had he known what chaos this was to cause on the Piccadilly Line that afternoon, his own natural, touching concern not to cause others discomfort would surely have led him to make a less conspicuous exit.

The Agent is repeated tonight at 12.30 am on Radio 4.

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