When Garry Met Steven Berkoff
A Full Transcript of the Legendary Encounter
Released on August 2, 2015
Announcer: This is the Garry Bushell hour. GBH. The speaker’s corner of the airwaves.
Garry Bushell: Good evening culture lovers and welcome to the Garry Bushell talk show where my guest tonight is the legendary actor Steven Berkoff, also of course, a director, a playwright and an author. We will talk about all of that and your latest book “Sod The Bitches!” in due course. I wanted to start with your childhood. You were born in 1937, in Stepney, the son of a Jewish tailor at a time when anti-Semitism was rampant. Then came the war, the horror of the blitz. What were your first memories of the East End?
Steven Berkoff: First memories of the East End were very, very shadowy because after about, when I was about three, we were evacuated and so I have no real memory. All I do remember is a flight of stairs, my mother grabbing me in her arm when the sirens went during the big blitz of London. That was when Goering, who was the head of the Luftwaffe in Nazi Germany, decided to obliterate London to make them yield. Then to do it, that was one of the first times they used military might on a kind of industrial scale. Every single night my mother would grab me because we’d hear the sirens.
I think the blitz went on for about sixty-four days. I remember that, because it was every night. The sirens would go, she’d grab me. Then we’d come back maybe two or three hours later, go into the Underground. That’s all I remember. My mother did say that by sixtieth night my dad saw us all sleeping a bit weary and shadowy eyed and the sirens went and he said, “Look. They’re bombing the docks. They’ve been bombing the docks for sixty nights. They’re not bombing Whitechapel,” which was true they hadn’t been bombed yet. “Let them sleep.” Otherwise we’d get up and we’d go down, and so my mother being much more cautious, very pragmatic. She said, “You never know, this could be the night.” She grabbed us and we went down. I always remember the stairs, going down the stairs.
Then in the Underground we heard lots of bombing and everything. We came up and were told we can’t leave until about six in the morning and we went back to the house and our house was gone. It was the only thing hit in the entire Whitechapel Road. It was 104 Whitechapel Road, and it was a direct hit. The house was taken out. The whole top floor. Had my mum said, “Okay. Let’s be there.” You never know, might have been. That’s the one that was, that’s the destiny. That’s all I remember.
Garry Bushell: Where did they ship you off to? Where were you … ?
Steven Berkoff: Went to the suburbs. Well, not the suburbs, into the shires of Bedforshire. We went to a town called Luton. It was a kind of very semi-pleasant and a little bit industrial. They had, I think, Ford cars there and it was a big industry for the hat business. They had a big hat manufacturers there. It was a kind of modern-ish type of town with all those houses. Semi-detached, street-after-street, ribbon development. That’s where we lived in a little street, called Grantham Road, in Luton, and that’s where I first went to school. My East End really didn’t rub off on me until we returned to the East End after the war when I was ten.
Garry Bushell: Had anti-Semitism been driven underground, or was it-?
Steven Berkoff: Not really. There was no anti-Semitism where I lived. You see, because the East End was virtually a sanctuary for all the Jewish immigrants. There was so many bloody Jews there that you didn’t see any anti-Semitism. The only other people who were there, were of course the Irish, because the Irish had to leave Ireland and were poverty stricken and work was thin on the ground and so all the Irish would come over and they lived in the East End. The East End was divided. The north East End was all Jewish, then soon as you passed the Highway to Wapping and Limehouse and all round there, that was Irish. You never crossed that main road. The Highway, that would be dangerous, although eventually the Jews and the Irish became great allies.
The Jews would help the Irish because during the dock strike when they went out on strike and the mothers couldn’t stay at home, they supported the dads and they didn’t just want to be hanging around at the house. They’d go out with their kids and sometimes if they had babies, the Jewish mothers would take the babies off them. That was one of the first real connections and they got used to that, so the Irish women would come over in the early morning, because their husband’s on the strike and they still had to go out and do the shopping and the cooking and whatever and they’d give the babies to the Jews. Suddenly there was a connection. It was the first time probably in the last century or so that one group has gone to the aid, so openly, nakedly, and so voluntarily, so there was a connection.
Then when Oswald Mosley, who’s that neo-Nazi fascist, walked down the East End in 1936 with what they called the Blackshirts, because he supported Hitler. How England tolerated this, to me has always been a mystery. I mean, there was Hitler shrieking about the Jews and shrieking about war and shrieking, well he shrieked about everything and here’s a man in London who supports him and he’s allowed, not only to be supported, but he’s protected by the police under the guise of free speech. He came down the East End. All the Jews gathered in the streets. A lot of the Jewish organizations said, “We shouldn’t do this. Don’t go in the streets. There’s going to be violence and it’s going to be horrible and it’s going to show us to be aggressive. Just let them march, ignore them.”
The main Jews, especially the communists, said, “No. We will not let them march.” They came out there and who came with them? Who turned up? Irish dock workers. It was the most fantastic day in Jewish history in the East End of London. Irish dockworkers, they all came out there in their rough old clothes. [inaudible 00:07:39] talking like that. [inaudible 00:07:40]. They said, “Oh. Thank you. Thank you. Whatever your name was, Mr. Doherty. Thank you Mr. O’Leary.” “Ah, that’s all right. I here you’re helping us and we’ll [fucking 00:07:51] help you [inaudible 00:07:52].” They came out there and they were tough and the Jews, who are also quite tough East End working class. They weren’t Woody Allen, nebbish. That’s not the kind of Jew I know.
The Irish came and linked hands with them. The Irish, when the Blackshirts came, the Irish rushed them and beat them to pieces. Then the police came in with clubs and they rushed the police and then whoever was in charge says, “We’re going to have a lot of trouble.” They stopped the march.
Garry Bushell: I think some gangs came down from Glasgow too, to join that particular, that was ’36 wasn’t it? About the-
Steven Berkoff: 1936, because my uncle was there. My uncle Sam who was a great agitator as a radical liberal. He belonged, as everybody did, to the Communist Party, because that was a humanist party. That was how we were perceived at the time, not knowing enough about Stalin. Uncle Sam fought and there is a mural in Cable Street. A very famous mural, quite magnificent mural and uncle Sam’s face is immortalized there. That’s Sam, that’s my uncle who I adored and who taught me everything I knew as a child. Taught me values, taught me culture, showed me the movies, Saturday morning cinema. Used to walk with me and my cousin Barry along the embankment to the Cameo. Taught me about values, about decency, about honesty and literature.
He was a tailor’s cutter and he knew everything about literature. He could quote reams of Shakespeare but he didn’t have the formal education to be a professor, or to be a scientist, or an engineer. He was just a trouser cutter.
Garry Bushell: Your father changed his name to Berks and you changed it back, didn’t you? Was that an important thing to you, to reclaim your heritage?
Steven Berkoff: Yeah. I thought I may get a bite of it. I mean Berks, sounds too English. There is an English name, Berks. It’s like Berkshire or something. Once, I remember at school somebody, a teacher said, “Berks? Are you related to the acid family?” I thought, “Oh, God. A soul suitable for Berks and acid manufacturer,” and I thought, “God!” As I grew up I thought I have to get rid of that name. Then it had other connotations in my teens, to be a berk, so I thought I didn’t like that. Although, Berk is a famous name. It’s a Scottish name as well, Burke. B-U-R-K-E. I thought I’ll change it and I’ll get a piece back. Berkowitz, that’s a mile too far, so I changed it to Berkoff, which has also received a certain amount of abuse, but it’s better than Berks. I like the name, it’s strong, it’s vigorous and it has some of my origins.
The Guardian newspaper, about ten years or fifteen years ago, used to have a little mockery column. Taking the names. It would like, as if pretending to analyze the etymology of names. One week they did Stallone. It says stallion, horsey, not very bright. You know, like Sylvester Stallone. Then it had one week, it had used my name of Berk. To Berk, a rude name for a woman. I thought why are you mocking me like this. I got in touch with Rusbridger who was that sybaritic, spineless editor of the Guardian. I got in touch and I said, “Why do you do this?” He said, “Oh. Really, I do have to apologize, but it’s not meant to be offensive. It’s meant to be light-hearted.” I wrote to all the Berkoffs that I knew. I looked them up in the internet and there was like three hundred in New York, and a hundred or so here.
I wrote to them and said, “What do you think of this?” Half wrote back and said, “What a mindless scum-sucking pig. How dare you abuse our name. It’s a rich name more than your stupid, stinking, fetid, useless names.” I had this from about a hundred Berkoffs and I sent it to him. I said, “This is it.” Then they stopped it. That’s typical of the left wing. They think they’re left wing, but they’re more right wing than effing neo-Nazis.
Garry Bushell: That’s one of things we were talking about before you got here. How the anti-Semitism that used to be a right wing thing is now disguised, in the guise of anti-Zionism, is presented as a left wing thing, but really the reality is not very different.
Steven Berkoff: No different. There’s no difference. You can be anti-Israel, that’s fair enough, because I think some of the things they do have been over the top. They’ve been too zealous in their desire for security and treading on the toes of too many Palestinians. I’m for that. I can be anti-Israel. Anti-Zion means you don’t believe in the idea that the state should be a sanctuary for Jews worldwide and that becomes a philosophy. Say, “No, the Arabs were there for thousands of years and all this, that and the next.” That’s absolutely true, but the alternative is Nazi Germany, or Stalinist Russia and it’s not very pleasant. Yes, that place was occupied by the Arabs and God bless them, but they moved over in the bed. “Shift over a bit mate,” and made a little room.
Mind you, a lot of that land, to be quite frank, there was a lot of room there. The Arab states are massive and if you look at Saudi Arabia, look at Iran, and you look at all the rest of it, the Lebanon, and look at Iraq. They’re vast, vast spaces. If you look at that space where Israel is, the very waist of it. I think somebody was there showing, I don’t know who it was, maybe it was Moshe Dayan, somebody was showing an American President, and they flew over. He said, “This is where it ends. That’s the narrow part.” And he said, may be Moshe Dayan, he said, “Moshe, you got to be kidding? That’s the border?” He says, “My ranch is bigger, in Texas.” It was Bush. The older Bush. He said, “My ranch is bigger. You’re making a joke.”
That is the waist. It’s twenty-three miles, or something, twenty-three to thirty wide at the narrowest. It’s not a huge area. I don’t like anti-Zionists. I’ve never liked them, because I say, “Israel’s gone too far,” and I’m the first one to speak out against it.
Garry Bushell: Having said that, it is the only democratic liberal state in the region. It’s the only state that protects freedom of speech, freedom of sexuality-
Steven Berkoff: And protects the Arabs, because the Arabs, there’s a million Israeli Arabs. Protects them, gives them full health service, education, work, protection, union rights. I’ve lived in Israel and Arabs are treated very well there.
Garry Bushell: How do you feel about someone like George Galloway who nominally comes from a left wing socialist background and yet he’ll go out of his way to kiss the backsides of all these Arab despots and apologize for all sorts of terrorists?
Steven Berkoff: You see, with someone like George Galloway, he’s a very interesting man. There is something which we would need a psychoanalyst to look at. There is something where he has such self loathing. He has a psychotic, sociopathic mentality, so since he feels he’s not loved, basically he’s loathed. He would join alternative groups to love them and say, “Love me. Look how I want to help you.” People will feel that he is a peculiar and most aggressive and abusive man, but he will, like some kinds of insects bury themselves into the flesh of creatures and that’s what he does. He buries himself into the Arab cause, even if he knows what’s going on is bad. Even if he knows that Saddam Hussein is a mass murderer, he goes over there and woos him.
You’ve got this Mayor in the East End, Rahman. For years I’ve known, because I’ve lived in the East End. There’s hardly a week or a month goes by where we don’t read in the East End Advertiser, from totally objective journalists who say there’s terrible things going on. There’s crookery, there’s thievery, there’s racism, there’s fiddling. All this, we’ve had this for years and they’ve said, “We’ve got to get rid of him.” Eventually, because they didn’t want to cause any kind of backlash, because that’s why the people are very reluctant to attack anybody who is Muslim. That’s why the sex traders in Rotherham got away with it. They’ve been a bit treading lightly on Rahman, but now they said, “No, they can’t take anymore.”
The man is a rogue. Who was there in the front row to defend him? Galloway! Instead of saying, “Yes. He’s done bad. We mustn’t support him. There are better Muslims,” and there are some great Muslims, and there are some great intellectual Muslims, and great artistic, and poetic, and literate Muslims, and good political. Why? It doesn’t matter if the guy was a murderer he’d say, “That’s not right. It’s all a trick. It’s all part of the white racist superiority.” Livingstone, another scumbag. He’s there as well. I thought, “You’re known by the company you keep,” and if you look at where Galloway has, the corners he’s crawled into and then saying, “We don’t have any Jewish tourists.” Where was that? Was that in Rotherham? Where he’s an MP?
Garry Bushell: I don’t know where he’s the MP for. He got mixed up himself, didn’t he? He said, was it Bradford? Where is he?
Steven Berkoff: Doesn’t matter. He didn’t want any Jewish. Don’t say Israeli tourists. Be bold at once say, “No Jews wanted.” Okay, fair enough. I don’t feel like all those many Jews either, but don’t disguise it by “It’s got to do with Israel, and because of their attitude in Israel, and because they defended themselves against the bombers in Gaza.” Just come out with it. The man is, I have no words for him. We had a guy like him called Oswald Mosley.
Garry Bushell: Who, of course, you played someone very like Mosley when you were the fanatic in Absolute Beginners.
Steven Berkoff: That’s right. Yeah, I wrote that too.
Garry Bushell: I was going to say did you write it, because the rhythm of it is- [crosstalk 00:19:34]
Steven Berkoff: Yeah. They wanted something in verse. They showed a kind of a [inaudible 00:19:37] and do it like a rap. I wrote it out and I did it, I learned it. They liked it. It only took one, two takes. It was terrific.
Garry Bushell: Really powerful stuff.
Steven Berkoff: Yeah.
Garry Bushell: Let me take you back, just back again to your teens because there was a time when you went off the rails a bit, wasn’t there?
Steven Berkoff: Yeah. All teens go off the rails, because it’s a kind of common biological fact with the hormones raging. It’s like a young horse and your horses have trainers. You train them, you curb them. You, what they call, break them in. They learn to respect the trainer. They learn to obey the trainer. They learn also to curtail their more errant instincts. Same with a teenager, teenager’s a young stallion and unfortunately my father neglected that particular area. Don’t think he was a man who was cut out for family. He didn’t have enough control. When he did say something, I listened to it and I learned from it, but mainly it was uncle Sam. When we were living in the council estate I got into trouble, because I was too imaginative and too wild, and untrained, uncontrolled.
I got into trouble and I then went to court and then went in front of some stupid idiot Judge called Basil Henriques. A Jewish Judge [inaudible 00:21:06] in a juvenile court. He sent me to, what they wanted to try out, the detention center. What they call a short, sharp, shock. They think rather than send young kids who’ve got some talent, or some ability, to borstal for a year or two years, send them for maybe two or three months. These places were horrendous. They were absolutely brutal and eventually they closed them, because they were brutalizing the kids and even causing them to maim themselves just to get out. This man was told about the detention centers. They said, “If you have any really bad juveniles, we’re trying to fill them up; do a test.”
The man was not pleasant. He was, I believe, honored. They’ve named a street after him. Henriques Street. I think he was a particularly nasty man. He had no children of his own and he didn’t care sending young kids away, so that happened. I got inside a really wicked detention center.
Announcer: I say! Did you know that you can buy Garry’s books, and his audio books on our website at Litopia.com. What could be nicer than curling up with Garry?
Garry Bushell: You’re probably best known for villainous roles to the general public. I mean, General Orlov in Octopussy. Lieutenant Colonel Podovsky in Rambo: First Blood II. Gangster, Victor Maitland in Beverly Hills Cop. George Cornell in The Krays. Were you happy as the movie bad guy?
Steven Berkoff: Oh, yes. Of course. You’re always happy, because the villain is the most, in a way, completely thought out character. The villain, he is what you call a pivotal role in film, because it’s like a balance. I forget, what is the word? The fulcrum. He carries the weight of the film, enabling the good guy to shine. The good guys are usually, not always, bland. Maybe sometimes heroic and sometimes bold and they’re usually attractive and they get the girl. They can be replaced, but the villain cannot. The villain has to be very precise, definitive, clear. Also, a good actor because he has to fool people that he’s a good guy. To some people he might appear a good guy, because he has to deceive people. The villain’s a good role. It’s part of a long tradition that the villain is a great, great role. That started centuries ago when plays were great.
In the present time we don’t have great plays. We have good social commentaries. They’re not great plays. Very few. Some are great in the sense of the investigation of the human soul by Eugene O’Neill, or Tennessee Williams. Most British plays are dreadful. In the early part of the last century, in the last century and Shakespeare’s time, the villain was central to the drama. Whether you had the villain like Richard the III, or you have a villain like Iago, or a villain like Macbeth. These are fantastic roles, so beautifully defined and audiences [would love it 00:24:45]. As we come into this century plays got weaker and they became more socially minded. Bernard Shaw would write a play about the terrible situations of the housing and poor women prostitutes and then very good historic plays like Saint Joan. That was a brilliant play, no question. Mainly about the social causes that shape our society.
In Elizabethan times they didn’t give a monkey’s toss. They wanted to take apart the human psyche and show you what a man could be. Heroic. The heroes were strong. They weren’t kind of pale and trying to kind of “let’s catch the villain.” Clint Eastwood, who is actually good. I love him, because he’s played both villain and hero and Robert Redford being all beautiful hair and all the nice guys. The film continues the culture of the villain. In old films you get fantastic, fantastic villains. I’m thinking some of the great ones of recent years. Even the British one like Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast was the most powerful piece of villainy and of course Tony Hopkins in …
Garry Bushell: Silence of the Lambs.
Steven Berkoff: Silence of the Lambs. Very cunning, very clear, very sophisticated. The only place you don’t get villains is where the water is shallowest. Theater. Don’t get villains. Why aren’t there villains? Why can’t we have the Iagos, and the Macbeths, or the Lady Macbeths? What is wrong? We have plays about how England or Germany was during the Hitlers. Then we’ll have a play about some other wanky. How is the church, or Jesus give me. It’s so awful I can’t tell you, but the film does keep on the villains.
Garry Bushell: How did you find the Hollywood experience?
Steven Berkoff: I loved it. It was fun, because all that mattered to them was, “Do you have energy? Do you have wit? Are you funny? Can you deliver? Have you got charisma? Have you got chutzpah? Did the audience sit up in their seat when you come on?” They’re not interested in that you went to, you know, you didn’t give blow-jobs at Eton. They’re just concerned that you are tough, that you have got background. They don’t want university people, because they’re all right, they respect learning, but the people off the street have got grit. They’re eaten grit. They’re eaten dirt. They were brought up with grit. Brando was brought up with grit so was Robert de Niro so was Cagney so was Jack Palance. He was an ex-boxer.
You bring grit. Where do you have grit? In the street. You eat it. You eat the atmosphere, the petrol fumes, the atmosphere, the conflict. That makes the actor. Going to Eton makes you speak very well. You can speak lovely, but it didn’t give you any effing grit mister!
Garry Bushell: The first film I saw you in had a lot of grit. I was sixteen years old and I saw you in A Clockwork Orange before they banned it. You were playing a sadistic cop I think. For all we might disagree about A Clockwork Orange now, at least it showed the subversive power of art. That someone would be panicked by it enough to ban it, and actually drive it underground and make it more of a cult thing than it ever would have been.
Steven Berkoff: Oh, yes. Yes, it did do that. Kubrick very cleverly adapted that extraordinary book. That book, when I read it, didn’t contain the violence that the film did. It contained this very sinuous, acrobatic feats of language. Inventive language. He had some of it, but there was a kind of half-Yiddish, half-Russian. It was a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, brilliant way that street people invent and involve a language. He was bold, Kubrick, to take it on. It wasn’t inventive enough. When I remember seeing the film I thought a lot of it was a bit conventional. Some of the fight scenes were awfully, awfully conventional. It was decorated with some lovely music, Bach on synthesizer and a bit slow-mo. I looked at it the second time, I suddenly liked it again. Then I looked at it once again maybe a few years back and I thought it was daring but it didn’t quite hit the mark.
It was certainly bolder than anyone else and Kubrick had a reputation for boldness and going along a path no one else would choose. Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, was right. I think he lost his way a little bit and his greatest films were before then.
Garry Bushell: How difficult was it for you to play Hitler in War and Remembrance?
Steven Berkoff: No problem. No, no problem. When I heard they were casting it I felt that I would have, because Hitler had as a younger man, this extraordinary charismatic power and energy in public speaking. I thought [no 00:30:44] ordinary actor could do that if he has that experience of speaking and has done a fair amount of the classics. Also, I had run a company you see. A small company, but nevertheless I have trained the company, I have toured with them, and I have instructed the company, and I’ve taught them and we’ve gone from country to country. It was a bit like a small army. I had been the head of this company, so I knew what it was to be responsible for other people, other actors.
I felt only I could play Hitler because I had been a governor. Maybe just in theater. I had gone to nations to conquer nations, conquer them with language, but still you’re going in. I felt I could do it. I met Dan Curtis, God bless his soul he’s dead now, I said to him when I went to the hotel for the audition, “I’m your Hitler.” I had a tan and this was thirty years maybe, maybe less than thirty years ago, twenty-six years ago. I put on the mustache and the hair piece, came out of the bathroom and their faces dropped, because I was Hitler and I had him. He said, “Okay, Steve. You want to read this bit here?” I hadn’t bothered to learn it. Some actors will learn it. I thought, “I’m Hitler. I don’t have to learn it!” I knew it. Then I got the role.
Garry Bushell: How did the pull of the stage get you in the first place? The lure of performance? How did you even get into that?
Steven Berkoff: It’s to do with camaraderie. It’s the one place where people gather. That’s what appealed to me then. When you first step into a little classroom in a backstreet, maybe a little institute. There may be a dozen people, boys and girls, and they’re all concerned with worshiping at the altar of the word and of the gesture. They all love the same thing and they all love the same actors and they all say, “Oh. You remember Marlon, when he did this fantastic On The Waterfront and said, ‘I coulda been somebody. I coulda had class and I coulda been a contender instead of a bum, which is what I am.'” Everybody’s doing impersonations and everybody’s loving it. Then other people are doing Laurence Olivier.
Actors, they love to speak and impersonate and reflect and that’s what drew me. It was to have a friend. To have mates all consumed with the same passion and also when you start acting you don’t have to be a genius and if someone like myself had no degrees and they had very little education. Not through my own fault. Left school at fifteen. If you don’t know anything, you had no degrees, and you have no A Levels and you have no General Certificates and you have nothing, you can be an actor! Not only can you be an actor, you can be a superb actor, because you’re stupid! That’s the gift, because the stupidest people are the greatest actors. When you’re stupid you have imagination and the more stupid you are the more crazy your imagination is. You invent things.
All these kids, really dumb, stupid, uneducated, imbeciles, they created the greatest art of our time. They created the greatest lyrics of rock and roll. All kids who left school at fourteen, fifteen, maybe sixteen. Some went to art school for a bit, but as an actor you don’t need anything. You need imagination. If you go to university and then go to drama school that can be very helpful and I think the actor mustn’t think, “Oh, dear. I’ve gone to university.” It can be helpful. You [have-a-good-with 00:35:04] language. No great actor goes to university. The greats they learned it on-site. Olivier left school when he was sixteen and he learned it. He went to RADA as a young kid. Then he worked in the theater.
Albert Finney didn’t go to university. Paul Scofield didn’t go to university. John Gielgud. Their university was the theater. Now, we’ve deodorized the theater somehow. Then people from Eton and Ascot think, “Oh. It’s rather … It would be lovely to go and we can do TV.” All these actors, and some good ones, but there’s something when you’re educated which is … [inaudible 00:35:50] possibly can deny the values of education, for God’s sake, we need great doctors operating on me. I don’t want idiots, but I want somebody who has been dragged up in the very bowels of society. They can give you more.
I’ve looked at people. I was watching an ad. It was one of the movies. It’s very successful. There was a girl, she’s the lead. Her face looked like someone who sold you, maybe peppermints at Boots the chemist. It was all neat. She’d been educated. What education does, it somehow refines, makes you more alert, makes you more cunning, and yet the face is not open. I like the faces of actors like Henry Irving, that great [hawk 00:36:48] face. Charles Edmund Kean. Olivier, Burt Lancaster, Jack Palance. These faces are faces that have never been curtailed, shaped, or honed. You see educated people, they’ve got these very good faces and I remember looking at this girl with her neat little face and I thought, “Eurgh. I’m sick just to look at you on the magazine. Get out of my hair.”
Let me see those wonderful whores who were the great actresses. They were like Betty Grable or Lauren Bacall, or that beautiful, who was the femme fatale in those noir films with the long blonde hair. They were like magnificent. They may be not great actors, but they gave something off the screen that these little princesses they can’t do.
Garry Bushell: I’m amazed when you see them with Botox in there. I mean why would an actor or an actress want to fill their face with poison and not be able to move their face?
Steven Berkoff: That’s just because of the merchandising really. They got a brand and they like them.
Garry Bushell: When you start you’re doing Kafka plays and then you start writing your own.
Steven Berkoff: Yeah.
Garry Bushell: I think the one that you were the most proud of was Sink the Belgrano!
Steven Berkoff: I was proud of it yes.
Garry Bushell: There was a report I think published more recently that said, the investigation was done but never published, that the Belgrano had been ordered back and it was about to engage with other ships and sink British ships. Do you think that changes the perspective?
Steven Berkoff: It was ordered back?
Garry Bushell: It was coming back.
Steven Berkoff: They’re trying to do a cover up. They didn’t want to risk it. They didn’t want to put it on a kind of search and destroy mission, because it was a training ship. In that ship none of the sailors was over the age of eighteen. They were kids, except the half a dozen who were running the ship, they were all kids. They didn’t want to risk it, because they knew that the British Navy was superb. That would be the last thing they wanted. When Thatcher said, “Stay outside. Two hundred miles.” My God. That’s a hell of a distance. They did. They went in a ziggy-zaggy way, but they didn’t want to risk it. Thatcher was in a state, because unless they declare war we can’t go around sinking their ships. We’re a bit hamstrung.
Whilst they’re waiting for the United Nations and for the American politicians to make a deal. Hague at the time was on the verge of making a deal, which Thatcher didn’t want that. If you have a deal they’ll have to say, “Well, in ten years time the Falkland Islands must become the Malvinas, or must return to-.” Which, of course, it should be. It’s right on the edge of Argentina. What are you talking about? It’s not the Isle of Wight. It’s like thousands of miles from bloody England.
Garry Bushell: It’s about as far as Gibraltar is from here though isn’t it?
Steven Berkoff: Yeah. More or less.
Garry Bushell: Let’s talk about Decadence, the film you directed and wrote and performed in with along with Joan Collins. Playing a couple of roles each.
Steven Berkoff: Yes.
Garry Bushell: I seem to remember a picture with her astride you with a riding crop?
Steven Berkoff: Yes.
Garry Bushell: Which must have been fun to shoot, if nothing else?
Steven Berkoff: It was a bit of fun, because in the stage play I talk about horse racing and hunting. “Where you going tomorrow darling?” “Oh, we’re going hunting!” “Oh, how simply super. I say, well can I come too?” “Would you like to?” “Yeah. Oh, I’d love to see how they hunt.” “Well, I’ll show you. Get on your knees darling.” “Oh. Isn’t this fun.” We’re playing soppy buggers. It was just showing up the British upper classes. Those spineless, stupid, twerps who hunt anything just to put some stiffness in their flaccid dicks. Why would you hunt a bloody fox? I mean they’re beautiful creatures. You can’t make them in a laboratory. You hunt and kill a fox, I think it’s disgusting.
Garry Bushell: Ask a chicken. As a chicken what they think.
Steven Berkoff: Chickens don’t mind foxes. Chickens understand foxes.
Garry Bushell: I’m going to go off on a tangent now.
Steven Berkoff: Yeah, go on.
Garry Bushell: How do you feel about the cabinet?
Steven Berkoff: What cabinet?
Garry Bushell: Cameron’s cabinet?
Steven Berkoff: I think they’re a good bunch. Very good bunch. I don’t know, I don’t look at them that much. I heard Osborne, George Osborne in the House of Commons making his budget speech. I have to tell you, it was one of the greatest performances I have ever seen. He spoke for well over an hour. Articulate, perceptive, sharp, analytical. Persuasive. Maybe exaggerate this or that, but the authority, the dynamism, the charm, as the other side looking like yobbos from some down and out piss-hole in Glasgow or wherever, London. They’re going, “Yeeee! Oooo! Yuuuu! Aaaa! Yuuuu! Yeee!”
Osborne was like Henry the V. I even wrote to him. I said, “That was one of the greatest, most authoritative speeches I have ever seen in a public place.” Next to when Cameron made three, four years ago, his parliamentary speech which he also did without notes and I congratulated him. They were great speeches and I congratulated Blair. A person who can make a great speech, holds the country in their hands. As somebody said, “He who can dominate a dinner table, can dominate the world.” That’s what Oscar Wilde said. I liked it. I liked Osborne.
Garry Bushell: That’s what worries me about Galloway, because Galloway dominated the Senate. How much power is that? To think that someone so mixed up and wrong could do that is quite frightening.
Steven Berkoff: He is a fantastic speaker. That guy is a big conman. So was Hitler, a fantastic speaker. You’re right to pull me up on that. It doesn’t mean to say that they’re great people, but it was a great speech. Galloway doesn’t make great speeches, he makes vicious attacks. I thought Osborne was good. I thought Cameron, he’s a good man. Obviously, because he couldn’t even be like, I think he’s an idealist. Maybe links forces with the wrong people, but I think May … What’s her name?
Garry Bushell: Theresa May.
Steven Berkoff: Theresa May. I think she’s a fabulous woman. I have nothing but admiration for her. When I look at the other side. I see that woman with the dead [hairs 00:43:48]. When her husband was caught watching porn and she put it on her expenses. I thought, “Oh, you poor people. You’ve got to sit there. No wonder you’re resigning. You got to sit there and when we look at you we see a man in a backroom with his dick out having a J Arthur.” That’s all I see. I can’t help it and when she speaks it’s awful. I see this poor guy, Miliband. He’s got better, the office maketh the man, but he’s making mistakes. He’s stumbling, he’s physically stumbling, verbally stumbling and if he makes a deal with the Scots, that would be the end of the Labour Party for a hundred years.
Garry Bushell: I think so.
Steven Berkoff: Because that party is demonic. It has the mentality which is right for a Scot. It’s a small country, and it’s a great country and that engenders in you a desire of immense nationalism. Because, “You fight. It’s our country and it’s great and the Scots and the this and we’ve education and we’re brilliant and we’re marvelous and we’re inventors and we’re … ” It makes you so, in a way, over protective, overzealous, because you’re a small nation. That’s what small nations do and it is to their credit. When you are in a big nation, like the United States. If you spoke like that they’d think you’re barmy. They’d think you’re small, paranoid, nationalist. In England, it’s a big nation for a small size. In their excitement, in their kind of turned on by the fact that everybody in Scotland is going to vote for them, the BNP, or not the BNP-
Garry Bushell: Yes, the SNP.
Steven Berkoff: They even start saying in public, like that other guy who looks like a potato, Salmond. He says, “Oh, we’re going to be writing your budget. Hey. We’re going to be writing your budget.” I thought, “You stupid ponce. Why don’t you be shrewd? Keep your big fat mouth shut. Say, ‘We’d like to be part of the Labour Party. We have differences, but we can compromise.'” That’s the nature of sharing power, we have to do that. But no, “I’m going to be writing hey, hey.” She said, “Oh. We want to be independent. We want to break away. We want to be our own little wee country.” After three centuries that is disgraceful. You threaten to break a nation up? That to me, that’s the worst thing I can imagine.
I’ve been living in Scotland. I’ve done twenty festivals in Scotland and I value it, but I also know it. There a lot of it, it’s a [wanked 00:46:54] out place. Every time I go to Edinburgh festival you can’t find a place that gives you a decent restaurant, a decent meal. The hotels don’t even know the prices. You go in, “How much is it?” “Well, I don’t know. We haven’t been told how much it is tonight, because the festivals on.” I thought, “How can you run a nation like this?” It’s unbelievable. All the Italians come up and they open all the restaurants up there. Then the French come up and everything else and then they’re starting the have the Japanese and then they give you places to eat. If you just relied on what’s in Scotland, you’d be up shit creek.
Eric: Hello. I am Eric Beck Rubin. Hardcore, out of control, book enthusiast. Inviting you to listen to a new show here on Litopia called Burning Books. Every three weeks we put out a new podcast on a single book. It could be a recent debut, a classic, fiction, non-fiction, and everything in between. The idea is to explore what lies at the heart of great books, books that try to be great but don’t quite make it, as well as now and then books that are irredeemably bad. Check out our archive shows on Litopia and we’ll look forward to having you join us for our next podcast.
Announcer: Burning Books. Exclusively from Litopia.com.
Garry Bushell: What is the state of British theater at the moment?
Steven Berkoff: It’s always the same. Sometimes you say it’s good, sometimes bad, but it’s always more or less. It maybe has got a lot worse, because it was freer ten, twenty, thirty years ago it was freer. Theaters were run by managers and if you had a play you’d go to the manager and say, “I’ve got a play.” He’d say, “We can make a deal. Seventy-thirty split.” Now, they’re run by directors who have been appointed to give it a little bit of pizzazz, so let’s get Kevin Spacey for the Old Vic and someone else for this one. There’s a lack of freedom, so you can’t get in. You can’t go, say to the Donmar, and say, “I would like to do a six week tour.” “Oh, no. We’re booked out for year. Oh, no. We’re booked out for the next two centuries.” They have their agendas.
Years ago the Donmar was run by this great guy called Ian Albery from the great Albery family. His father started the international World Theater Season and we saw theater from all over the world. From Japan, from Russia, from America, from France. Was saw the Berlin Ensemble, the Peter Stein Theater, Comdedie-Francaise, the Kabuki Theater, the Habima. That’s what these managers did. Now the directors run theater. That’s the worst thing in the world, because when a director runs a theater they’re terrified like somebody else comes who’s ten times smarter than they are and get bigger audiences. I call it the Saul and David syndrome. When the people say, “Saul has killed his thousands, David has slain his tens of thousands.” There’s a horrible jealousy.
You can’t go to RSC and say, “Do you have a space?” They’ve got two or three theaters. “Oh, not interested.” Me, who’ve worked for fifty years in the theater, have done ten West End shows and have been made also incidentally, a fellowship of [Central 00:50:43] and also a doctor, honorary doctor. They don’t even answer me, these piss-pots. They say, “Oh, thank you very much.” Those piss-pots. The National should not be run by a director, but what we call an Intendant in Germany. There is a manager of far seeking vision, who goes around the world with his assistant looking at directors, looking at plays, looking at new drama. Now it’s run by a director and if you’re different to him or her, you can’t get your snot in there.
Garry Bushell: Which is depressing when you think how dominated our culture is by television and how television relies increasingly on melodrama.
Steven Berkoff: Yes.
Garry Bushell: There isn’t much in much in British television now. At least back in the seventies, was it, when Law and Order and shows like that were made. At least it had a bit of balls to it. [inaudible 00:51:38] and stuff. What is there now? It’s all soap. Even the stuff that isn’t soap is soapy.
Steven Berkoff: The Americans are doing the best which is ironic.
Garry Bushell: With our soap, with our actors.
Steven Berkoff: That’s what I think of the present theater, it’s a bit crappy. It’s a bit monopolized. Theaters where I used to have a home are now only doing musicals. The Hackney Empire, which I’m from Hackney, they should have been my place I could go. Now it’s run by these women who say, “Oh, no. We don’t do drama here anymore.” Drama? You’ve got the greatest-
Garry Bushell: [crosstalk 00:52:11] said.
Steven Berkoff: … theater. Frank Matcham built this theater. They do musicals, comedies, chat show kind of, stand up, and the regular yearly panto. Mermaid? Business man closed the Mermaid. Round House just do weird, multi-purpose acts. My favorite theaters gone, got to find a new space.
Garry Bushell: Your dramatic style has been defined as ‘in your face’ theater. Do you think that’s fair? Fair enough? Good description?
Steven Berkoff: It means that it’s dynamic. It’s volatile. It’s expressive. You can hear the actors, that’s the main thing. You can hear them. Even in lovely places like the RSC I couldn’t hear the actors. They would start off, we could hear them. They come in on the stage and say, “My liege! (mumbles) … ” “Why have they gone so quiet?” Then the [inaudible 00:53:08] would say, “Ah! I see! My good Lord, (mumbles) … ” That’s why they speak so quiet, because they’re afraid of over-acting. They’re a bit like telly, so they think if they can be heard it means they’re over-acting.
Garry Bushell: Which is crazy.
Steven Berkoff: Yep. It’s God-darned crazy.
Garry Bushell: I enjoyed your Radio Two attacks on Twitter.
Steven Berkoff: Oh, that was a trick. I was in Edinburgh two years ago. They said, “This is just for the audience.” Because of that I thought I’d be a bit cheeky, because you have in life your two sides. The side which you really believe in and you tell to your wife, or a few mates. Like, “What do you think of so-and-so?” “Well I think he’s the biggest, cock-sucking, filthy scumbag, ponce.” If you’re on the radio, you say, “Well, I think he hasn’t done so … ” He said, it’s only the audience here. Fifty people, so I was a bit cheekier and the bastard had it recorded and put on the radio. He tricked me! He was a tricky, tricky man.
Garry Bushell: Does that you wouldn’t have said that EastEnders is a stinky, slobbing, cliched, mindless and moronic? I absolutely agreed with you on that.
Steven Berkoff: Yes, of course. It’s just terrible. How can you run a thing for twenty-five years and it not be moronic. It’s awful.
Garry Bushell: Tell us about your new novel.
Steven Berkoff: I was speaking to an actor today. I said, “I’ve got a little book launch.” He said, “Oh, yes. This is your anti-feminist rant.” I thought, “Bloody good, you got it.” I’ve been trying to find what it’s about. It’s an anti-feminist rant. It’s about a man who’s an actor. I wanted to write something acerbic. That sometimes is like a cause, when I was writing short stories I would start with the most ferocious line and see what came out. I wanted to write a disturbing, vulgar, nasty, pornographic, filthy, angry piece. Just I wanted to do. It was just to see what would happen. I wrote about a man who is an actor. Then he’s noticing, as I have, over the years that the reviews from the women, women critics have been more strident than the men. Some men can be nasty too, no question about that.
Some women have be wonderful, but there have been a general inclination for women to really hammer, and attack, and be cruel, and be vituperative, and vicious. I thought, “Why are you writing like that?” I did a play about antisemitism three years ago at the Jermyn Street Theater. There was this slag from the Evening Standard who said, “Oh, it’s so bad. It’s so poor.” Then, “The actors in the last one, they’re going into the gas chambers and he only calls them A and B.” I thought, “You thick as pig shit cow. Does it have to have a name? Don’t you see what they’re doing?” I think she wanted just to have a go. After a while, then there was Julie Burchill having a go for what I’ve no idea. I thought she’d be on my side.
Garry Bushell: What did Burchill write?
Steven Berkoff: Well, that was in Time Out. I wrote a rude thing about Thatcher when I was doing Greek. It was a bit naive. I said she wasn’t a [sensual 00:56:43] woman, would have felt sex, if had sex, been well and truly shagged, would be sensitive, sensitized. She wrote back, “Absurd. What an ugly, stupid, thick brained … ” I thought, “Why are these women so vicious?” When I read about them in the papers, how they attack men. They say, “Those poor men.” Make jokes of them, they’re silly, they’re stupid, they’re drunk, they can’t express themselves, they have no emotion. Men can’t convey deep feelings like us woman. We’ve seen this, it’s been horrible. This man suddenly he feels that they’re getting at him. Well, of course, they’re not. There may be a few and the book follows his path. That is the one part, that he feels paranoid about women.
The second part of the book is that he is a [normal 00:57:42] sexual man and he’s married. He has kids. Lovely daughter. He has to have an affair, because you’re sleeping next to the same heap of flesh for twenty years, naturally it’s the most obvious. They have this expression, “Oh. You’re cheating!” You’re cheating on yourself! You’re denying your passion, your heart, your viscera, your cock. You’re denying all these things, so you have an affair. No big deal. What makes the man into an addict is that when you have an affair you’ve got to be careful, you got to be cunning. You got to be ruthless. You got to be on guard lest she finds out. You got lipstick on your collar and look where you’re going and make sure there’s no receipts for the restaurants and the bills. Even when you put the money in the slot for the parking machine and then your MasterCard, everything.
It is like a non-stop, fucking spying investigation into the Third Reich just to have a shag. It’s terrible. By the time you get there you think, “Oh, I’ve got two hours. I told her I’m at the gym.” Then you can’t find a parking meter. You got a parking meter but if it runs over I’ll get a ticket. The ticket will go straight to my house. She’ll say, “What were you doing in Warwick Avenue?” “I-, I-, I was there because I didn’t … ” Then you get there and then you can’t get a hard-on because you’re worrying about the meter going over. It’s frightening what makes you become an addict. You become desperate. It’s about this desperation of the poor male needing a shag. He loves his wife. Not only does he love her, he can’t live without her. The little dicky don’t work. Neither should it work. You don’t want this poor woman to have to have your dick in her every single night for thirty years. It shouldn’t work.
You develop into a new relationship with your wife and something that is beautiful and something deep, and caring, and loving and you don’t shag your wife. No more than you shag your sister, or your mother. Your wife is to go to the movies with and go on holiday. Wash your knickers.
Garry Bushell: You just sold that book to me. I’m going to go out an order it as soon as I can. Who makes you laugh?
Steven Berkoff: My partner Clara, she makes me laugh. Christ. She gets so angry she starts doing impersonations of me. I am on the floor. I can’t breathe. I’m laughing and my stomach hurts. I say, “I can’t take anymore.” She has this gift which is just brilliant. Lots of things, funny things make me laugh. Not necessarily comedians, but absurd and brilliantly absurd things. Animals make me laugh sometimes. Dogs do funny things. Charlie Chaplin always made me laugh. The sweet innocence of the crazy things he did. Wonderful. He made me laugh. He’s taking the bill from the man in the restaurant, the big fat man, and he said, “What did you have?” He looks at his tie. He says, “You had steak. You had pudding.” It’s wonderful! It’s wonderful.
Garry Bushell: There’s a marvelous tradition of Jewish humor which is still powerful now, with people like Larry David now. Right through the Marx Brothers, all the way through.
Steven Berkoff: Oh, yeah. Marx Brothers used to be wonderful, yes.
Garry Bushell: What I love about you is your intelligence and your honesty and your outspokenness and the fact that you’re such an antidote to the culture we live in now. The culture we live in now is a culture where kids are brought up with singers who can’t sing and actors who can’t act and comedians who aren’t funny. What you represent, I think, is the absolute opposite of that. It’s craft. It’s daring. It’s courage. It’s outspokenness.
Steven Berkoff: Oh, that’s good. Yeah, comedians aren’t funny but Lee Evans is funny.
Garry Bushell: Lee Evans is superb.
Steven Berkoff: Lee Evans is part of that old school of brilliant physical humor.
Garry Bushell: His dad was funny too.
Steven Berkoff: Physical humor comes from the working class, because they don’t always yap. They use their body language. They use their shoulders. They’re always doing things, they’re like the blacks. They use their body almost as like a musical instrument. Middle class can’t use their body. They go to stand at the mic and be funny and they find that they’re awkward.
Garry Bushell: The thing that I feel about Lee Evans is perhaps a little bit about I feel the same about you to a degree, in that Lee has never really blossomed on television and you’ve not really used that, I mean I saw you in Deep Space Nine, or one of the Star Treks, but I’ve not seen you much on television. Is that a deliberate choice?
Steven Berkoff: No. No. Don’t get work. Don’t get the offers. Lee, he said once he can’t stand middle class comedians. I thought, “You’re right bang on the nail. Spot on.”
Garry Bushell: Television is dominated by middle class comedians now.
Steven Berkoff: Middle class, or even university comedians. God. What is that? I’ve seen them and they’re nice guys, but they’re awful.
Garry Bushell: What next for you?
Steven Berkoff: Well I am thinking about a new play. I’ve just written a new play called Corpse. That’s what actors do on the stage when they laugh, involuntarily laughing. They corpse. Means you’re killing it. You’re killing the drama, because suddenly you burst out laughing. You can’t help it. I’ve written this play and it’s about five dead actors. John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole and Laurence Olivier. They’re in purgatory. I’m looking for five actors to channel. I’ve got to find an actor to do John Gielgud and then someone to do Richard Burton. Then Olivier and et cetera. This is what I’m working on now. I’ve found five actors. Can’t find a theater. The bitches who run theaters, they don’t answer you, see?
I even, I mean it’s a lovely theater, The Arcola. It’s a bit of a dirty, squalid, smelly, dump, but they do good and there’s a woman there. I now don’t ask, I had a friend of mine said, “You ask for me in case she doesn’t like my work.” They said, “Oh, yes. Yes. Does he want to produce it or co-produce it?” I thought, “Oh, that’s nice. Someone’s responding to me.” I said, “Oh, I’d like to co-produce [inaudible 01:04:32].” No answer. I sent another email, “Did you get my email?” No answer. I thought, “You scumbag. How dare you run a theater and not pay the decency of respect to someone twice your effing age.” That’s what I come across all the time. I better get home to tea.
Garry Bushell: Steven. Mr. Berkoff. Thank you very much.
Steven Berkoff: Yeah. Okay. Darn tooting.
Garry Bushell: Thank you.