By Jeremy Miles
Controversial actor, writer and director Steven Berkoff let loose in a school full of sensitive young girls. Is that wise? I’m joking of course. Berkoff’s reputation precedes him. Tough-talking, uncompromising, occasionally terrifying - he once issued a death threat to a critic who gave him a less than favourable review - he’s a presence to be reckoned with.
Scowling backstage before his appearance in An Audience with Steven Berkoff at Avonbourne Girls School in Bournemouth he did nothing to dispel the hard-man image. He had a cold, there was no one to interview him on stage. No one had told him what he was expected to do. He was not happy!
With an eye on his film career a reporter from the local newspaper had asked him who he had liked working with.
Berkoff scoffed at the idea. “I don’t really like working with anyone,” he snarled. “They like working with me.”
He stomped off to his dressing room. “I’m afraid he’s in a bit of bad mood,” whispered the drama teacher whose idea it had been to get Berkoff to talk to the pupils. It had seemed such a good idea at the time. He didn’t look too sure now.
He needn’t have worried. Showtime arrived and so did Dr Theatre. Berkoff became a great big genial pussycat holding the 150 strong audience spellbound as he regaled them with tales from his long career in theatre and film.
Berkoff is best known to many as the bad guy in movies like Octopussy and Beverly Hills Cop and can currently be seen on the big screen in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
He made his name however in the 1960s and 70s as the bad boy of British Theatre. Outspoken and determined he riled the critics but the brilliance of his performances and the radical power of his productions eventually earned him the respect of the theatrical establishment.
In this special An Audience with Steven Berkoff, organised in conjunction with Clive Conway Celebrity Productions, the 74-year-old described how he learned his craft - at stage school, as a theatrical dogsbody in the West End and during years of summer seasons in repertory companies.
Performing 15 plays in 15 weeks in rep’ was, he said, like “a recurring nightmare” but extraordinarily useful experience. Finally Berkoff broke free, staging his own productions, studying mime in Paris and working in the avant-garde.
Today he look can look back on his early years with some pride. He has a somewhat ambivalent attitude to his film work. He described the tedium of shooting endless takes for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo under the direction of David Fincher and how he had eventually turned to co-star Jolie Richardson and asked: “How on earth do you survive this?”
Live theatre is in Berkoff’s veins. Movies may look glamorous and pay better but, as he told his young audience: “Nothing can ever come near the thrill you feel on stage when the curtain goes up.”
The one-time enfant-terrible of the English theatre seems both surprised and delighted to find his work being studied as part of the current A-level curriculum. “It’s wonderful,” he yelled. “It stands against all the slippery, slimy sods who slammed the door in my face. It vindicates me. I have the young!”