How We Met: Anita Dobson & Steven Berkoff

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The Independent Online

Anita Dobson, 62

An English stage and screen actress, Dobson is best known for playing Angie Watts in the BBC soap 'EastEnders'. She lives in London with husband Brian May

In many ways Steven and I have led parallel lives. He was born in Stepney, in the East End, and so was I. Our fathers were both in the rag trade (and both called Alfred), we went to the same drama school and we've both had to struggle in our lives to be who we are. Yet we didn't know each other for many years.

I first spotted Steven 20 years ago in a restaurant called Joe Allen, which was frequented by the theatre set. I'd always been a huge fan of his work; he has a wicked way of presenting the human psyche with all its frailties, and some of the stage and screen villains I've seen him play have been terrifying.

I'm a great believer that you should always tell people they are wonderful, as we're all insecure at heart, especially in our industry. So I stopped at his table and said, "I'm terribly sorry to bother you but I think your work is utterly brilliant." And his reply totally stunned me. He said, "I've got a play for you." He invited me to his home in Stepney and we read through his play, Kvetch. His writing is amazing and it was one of the best parts I've read. Afterwards, we stood on his balcony overlooking the river with a glass of wine and we talked, and I left on cloud nine.

Watching Steven perform up close is a mesmerising experience. I love his visceral energy; it's terrifying to see someone so into the part, but if you step up to the game too, he really embraces you. The play was brilliantly received, and winning an award for it was thrilling.

Steven and I have since shared dinners, first nights, birthday celebrations, and [my husband] Brian [May]'s concerts. They're huge fans of each other's work and it's been fantastic for me to see them become such good friends.

We've both travelled a long hard road from Stepney to where we are now. Twenty years ago we had a lot of fire in our guts, and I can see that Steven still has that, particularly when he's on stage.

He's a much stronger force, a bigger entity in theatre and film than me, so he's a bit of a hero of mine, and his advice to me has been fantastic. He often says, "You must run the full gamut of your abilities to see how far you can go." And he's given me the confidence to do that.

Steven Berkoff, 73

An actor and director, Berkoff is also a prolific playwright; his acclaimed works include 'Kvetch', 'Messiah' and 'Sink the Belgrano!'. He lives in east London

I remember first seeing Anita in an episode of EastEnders, and she lifted it to a high level of drama. There was something about her performance that was not acted out, but raw, almost too raw in the way it revealed her true self. I remember thinking she would be the best I could find for my new show [about Jewish suburban anxieties], Kvetch.

What decided it for me was when I actually met her, in 1991. She came over to me in a restaurant and she was just as she was on screen: open, vulnerable and emotional. I thought, "This can't be real," but this is how she is; she reacts to people very strongly. We got chatting and we found out we shared this working-class, East End thing. Growing up back then, it was a potpourri of blacks, Jews and Gentiles, with Jews taking on cockney slang and cockneys going to bagel shops and using Yiddish expressions. So while she wasn't Jewish, she could tap into it with no problem.

She was a superb acting partner and she gave all at each rehearsal; there was no concealing or trickery, but a nakedness about her performance and you couldn't do less than give it all back, so much so that at times I got confused between the characters and real life.It really formed a bond between us.

Her husband Brian came to all the run-throughs and performances and I was really encouraged by having this genius of a man, who plays the guitar like a god, come to our modest production and be so affected by the play. And I think it was Brian that kept us together over the years. I would go to his concerts with Anita at the Albert Hall, which was great fun, and we'd always go and have a Turkish meal afterwards – we all loves mezzes.

And Brian and I would also go see Anita in nearly everything she did. We just saw her in the play Bette and Joan. I think she's one of the best actors on the English stage, but I don't think people have rated her as highly as she deserved.

What impresses me most about her is her amazing work ethic; when she does her tour of panto seasons, she'll do 12 performances in a week.

I'm particularly looking forward to going to the Edinburgh Festival next month and reuniting with Anita again on stage, in my version of Oedipus. It'll be exactly 20 years to the day since our last play together.

Berkov's adaptation of 'Oedipus', starring Dobson, runs from 3 to 29 August at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh Fringe, tel: 0131 556 6550,