Steven Berkoff at E.Pellicci
Steven Berkoff had a sausage and salad roll and I had a bacon sandwich, which we ate sitting at a table under the canopy outside E.Pellicci, while relishing the ceaseless parade of life along the Bethnal Green Rd. No-one noticed I was sitting there with one of the greatest Bond villains of all time, Orlov from “Octopussy,” although Maria Pellicci herself left the kitchen and came outside to welcome the honoured guest, who was friend of her late husband Nevio. While Steven’s reputation on stage and film is built upon energetic performances, we enjoyed a relaxed conversation illuminated just occasionally by flashes of Steven’s characteristic brilliance with language.
Meeting Steven, I was excited to be in the presence of one of the great actor-managers, in the line of Henry Irving and David Garrick. Like his predecessors, Steven knows what it means to lead a company of actors in the theatre and he has embraced the great Shakespearian roles fearlessly, and with matchless command of the stage. Yet in spite of the stature of his achievements, he is not grand at all. You are immediately aware that Steven possesses a natural authority, but it is a charismatic soulful presence, both contemplative and humorous, reflecting a vivid intellect. You know he is whirling a multitude of thoughts behind those gentle grey eyes.
Born in the East End, Steven was evacuated as a baby, returning after the war at ten years old to grow up in Anthony St, off Commercial St. “There was so much entertainment and sweetness in the Jewish working class East End that I knew. Every Sunday there’d be dancing, so you’d get to know girls and become civilized. There were a million things to do – swimming baths at Mile End, Goulston St, Victoria Park and Betts St, where I swam competitively, swimming sixty lengths every day at age eleven. I used to go to Myrdle St where there was a mixed club at the school where you could play ping-pong, and there was a man who sold sarsaparilla at tuppence a glass from a window at the top of Cannon St Row until ten o’clock at night. It tasted so good, I’d go there every other day for years. One day, this man was murdered and the police found a box of money under his bed – forty or sixty thousand pounds – he had been saving all the tuppences for forty years. They bricked up the window afterwards.
It was a ‘shtetl,’ in those streets, people leaned out to sell things from everywhere, old women sold tobacco from their windows. Hessel St was full of people shouting in Yiddish. There was a man I would pass everyday on my way to school, he said, ‘Here son, be a good boy, fetch me a can of tea and I’ll give you threepence.’ I did it each day and that was my first wages. In Whitechapel there was a stall where I started to do a little bit of work for The Pen King, a hooked nose gentile. He asked me to watch the stall while he went to Lyons Corner House next to the tube station for lunch. He trusted me and suddenly there I was running the stall. I learnt from him what theatre was, from the way he demonstrated the pens. I remember the snow in the East End in 1947 too, the worst Winter in living memory. It became like a fairy Winter Wonderland and all the broken buildings seemed like castles, covered in snow.”
When Steven described these years, the tone of his speech and the gestures he enacted for each of the people he recalled, as well as the different voices he adopted, all served to bring the whole vision alive in a moment. Blessed with a natural gift for rhetoric, Steven can unexpectedly compose long elegant sentences with big adjectives spontaneously and deliver them in the rich cadence of his actor’s voice. Always with him there is this sense of so much within, an endless source of stories and even more unspoken.
To fully appreciate his affection for this Anthony St world, you must understand that he grew up in modest conditions, specifically his family lived in “one room and a kitchen.” Yet, significantly, Steven describes the experience of being rehoused in better conditions in Manor House when he was thirteen as one of loss. These three formative years in a universe comprising a few streets South of Commercial St granted Steven a particularly humane vision of culture and society that has sustained him throughout his whole life. He learnt about the importance of trust (“trust is all you have,” he confided to me), the meaning of community and he saw the poetry in life too. My “rite of passage” he calls it today.
Steven has an instinct for spotting the phoney and pretentious, and he turns vituperative describing some new upmarket East End hostelries that, unaware of his status as an internationally known movie star, have given him the snobbish brush off, treating him as they would any other working class East Ender. “Whorehouses of mendacity” was the pertinent phrase that Steven conjured to describe them, yet he recounts these anecdotes not out of bitterness but an awareness of their exuberant absurdity. It reveals something that Steven is still vulnerable to slights, that he still identifies with people from his own background and is affronted on their behalf. He is not complacent. There is a certain magnanimity among the best actors and Steven has it in spades. He cancelled a biography because he thought it was too hagiographic. Maybe he recounted a few monologues of frustration for me so that I should not think he had lost his edge. Steven does not act the movie star, because he does not need it – because he knows something better. He is here in the East End, and he can always come along to E.Pellicci and greet Nevio Pellicci and Jukebox Jimmy and know that he is one among equals.
We parted and Steven strolled off down the Bethnal Green Rd, while I ran down to Cannon St Row to photograph the bricked up window where sarsaparilla was once sold. Imagining Steven walking around with a head full of poetry and soul full compassion, seeing flashes of the world that has gone, yet with which he retains an emotional connection, had led me to suggest he might play King Lear. But true to his astonishing vitality – looking many years younger than his age – Steven declared he wanted to play Othello and my heart missed a beat when from deep within him a booming voice spoke lines from the Moor of Venice. He is his own man and he is nobody’s fool, this is the force of nature that is Steven Berkoff.
The window in Cannon St Row where Steven delighted to buy sarsaparilla between 1947 and 1950.
All that remains of Anthony St where Steven grew up
Salvatore, Anna, Steven and Nevio at Pelliccis.