by Steven Berkoff
232 pages, JR Books
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Bam, by Pat Black
Time for a quick game of “How culturally decrepit are you?” Ready?
Alright, who’s Steven Berkoff? An actor, was that? Correct, ten points. What’s he been in, then? The baddie in Beverly Hills Cop? Yes, we’ll give you that. Victor Maitland. Death by a thousand squibs, and quality swearing. Okay. And Rambo – he was in Rambo, you say? Right again. Any more? Yep, that’s right, he was in The Krays – getting a bullet in the bonce from Spandau Ballet’s bassist for his troubles. Okay. And..? Yes, you’re right - he was a Bond villain. The film, though... can you name the film? Oh... late-period Roger Moore, yes... safari suit, yes, of course, naturally... Ah! Octopussy, did you say? Phew, well done, you beat the buzzer just in time.
But of course, these big-money English-villain turns from 1980s blockbusters only paint a partial picture of Berkoff’s standing in the theatre – visceral, in-your-face theatre, the kind that might have you cowering in the front row while this near-psychotic detonation takes place on the boards. He’s directed and starred in award-winning shows, including a ground-breaking adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphorsis, throughout his 50-year career and remains one of the most recognisable faces on the west end stage. And if not knowing all that means you are culturally decrepit, well, that makes two of us. I only knew about Rambo, Beverly Hills Cop and all that until fairly recently.
But this is a fascinating memoir – told in a very odd, but compelling style. There is a lot of flourish in Berkoff’s language, plenty of “Oh, the impatience of youth! How soon it is gone!” laments that wouldn’t be out of place in high melodrama. And yet this is balanced by a very streetwise sensibility borne out of Berkoff’s formative days in the Jewish quarter of London’s east end. As the title suggests, Berkoff was a bit of a wild boy growing up in that grey, rationed era buttressing the end of the war and the 1960s. This book charts his journey from the cradle to his first day at drama school.
He grew up with his mother and sister in London, with a brief but exciting stay with American relatives in New York for one year. Berkoff’s father drifts in and out of his young life, and we are left in no doubt as to the author’s feelings for his old man. It seems that Berkoff Senior only showed up to father his children and be a husband to his wife whenever he felt like it, sloping off “to be with a tart,” possibly, and leaving Steven with bitter memories of a man who, it seemed, just couldn’t be bothered with family life. His treatment of his son does seem callous, though we can’t help but wonder along with the author if his mother’s sabotaging of Mr Berkoff’s johnnies with a sharp pin – producing little Steven – has anything to do with such hostility.
So, daddy issues dominate the opening part of the book. But the minute the hormones get dumped on little Steven and he makes the leap from short trousers to long, the book crackles with rude energy. When he describes those magical adolescent moments – trying to slip the tongue, and then the hand, and other indelicacies involving the fairer sex – it almost takes on tones of pornography. It certainly sums up the feelings of feral lads being, all of a sudden, at the mercy of gargantuan forces and the wiles of women, and there’s a grubby charm in Berkoff’s delivery of a teenager’s first tottering steps towards sexual maturity.
In his description of burgeoning, indeed overflowing sexuality, we get some the book’s biggest laughs – I was reduced to tears when he describes taking a break at the tailor’s he worked at in order to have a quick “Levy and Frank” in the stockroom. I was similarly emotional when he talked about the misery of taking the Tube on a hot day (a sweaty horror many of us will be familiar with) leavened only by “a quick bit of frottage” (an activity which, I should hope, we are not).
But, he promised us delinquency, and we get it. Berkoff describes something of a fall from grace as he transforms from a smartly-turned out grammar school boy, in love with books and learning and creativity, to a bit of a lout hanging with the wrong crowd. Something that struck a chord with me was in Berkoff’s implication that his dark period can be attributed in part to being let down by his teachers, unfairly written off and put on the scrapheap as part of Britain’s long-dismantled 11-plus education system.
As a teenager he takes part in fights and the usual ritualised deification of local “Tuffs”, the bad boys of his estate. He also frequents greasy spoons, street corners and dance halls and tries to cop off with girls. Although these seem like normal rites of passage for a young man in a big city, he deplores having wasted his time and creativity. Out of this period comes a child, which Berkoff had little do with outwith maintenance payments before the young one was legally adopted by another man. His dismissal of the child he never knew comes off as harsh but, sadly, all too typical of young men in such a situation, even today.
Although Berkoff doesn’t seem to have been involved in any serious altercations, a short-lived career in bicycle theft lands him in a reformatory for young offenders. Known as “Borstal”, this system is a now-discredited means of brutalising young men at the hands of sadists so that they will be frightened out of their offending habits... Yeah, right.
Still, it does the job for Berkoff. At the end of this chastening experience, he embarks on a series of odd jobs and foreign travel linked to his background in tailoring. After some ribaldry with lots of women (one episode nearly lands him in serious trouble when a young lady he attempts to embrace in Germany turns out to be just 14), he eventually catches the acting bug from the patrons of his tailoring business.
It all turns out well for the young Berkoff, and finally he becomes an actor. The manacles of his past, ties to the deadbeats he hung out with, the disappointments of family and classroom all fade away with time... although he is gracious enough to allow that the past continues to inspire him. For the artist, nothing is truly wasted.
Diary of a Juvenile Delinquent: A Memoir has plenty of twists and turns, and its memorable nuttiness makes it a cut above most other celebrity memoirs on the market at the moment.