Sex, violence and fame - The Hill was where I learned what I needed to do

More memories by Steven Berkoff


In Stamford Hill, I had a sense of discovering a completely new world. We all seemed to have something unique in common, a sense of going nowhere. Most of us had left school at 15, had passed no exams, were utterly rootless and therefore we belonged to each other. The longer I traipsed up to "The Hill", the more I felt myself become embraced in my new family.

I met Harold Harris, a most charming and funny young man who actually practised his alto sax at home and had dreams of one day being a pro. He became my first real pal on The Hill. Girls were now becoming a predominant feature in our lives and a source of some obsession. Of course no one in my family could be bothered or was ever remotely interested in giving me a few biological facts so you had to stumble along finding out as you go so to speak. Harold suggested that we both go to the Royal dance hall in Tottenham. I had never been to a dance hall in my life except for the Stamford Hill Boy's Club where I desperately struggled with the rudiments of "jive". So Harold and I jumped on the bus to the completely unknown and mysterious purlieus of a place called Tottenham.

We got off at the Royal as I remember on a Saturday afternoon where they had what they charmingly called "Tea Dances". I entered the great cavernous structure of one of the most magnificent buildings I had ever seen. The men's room was on the left and the lady's on the right as you entered, and there you would repair to mend your "barnet" and arrange the recalcitrant strands before you strode on in.

But what a sight greeted your eyes. The palaces of Kubla Khan could not be more magnificent. I seem to remember a huge spinning ball of mirrors, a vast dance floor and, to the left, an immense bar. This was civilisation, this was adulthood, this was my rite of passage. I did ask a young lady to dance and I was in a state of pure teenage lustful excitement. To hold your lady in your arms for the duration of the dance, thank her for it and return to your own seat was the nearest thing to heaven. From then on, the Royal Tottenham was my university of the practicalities of dealing with the essentials of life.

Saturday night was the night that all Stamford Hill waited for. This was part of the ritual that defined our tribe. We'd dress as best we could, bathed, spun our hair into immaculate waves and then we entered Nirvana, hoping against hope that we might strike lucky and take home a pretty young lady who would not object too much to some fierce and enthusiastic necking behind the council flats.

I had a greater sense of belonging back then than I have had ever since

The Royal had some odd unwritten rules and one was to stick to your own side. The Jews on the left and gentiles on the right. And woe betide you if you were tempted to stray. When fighting did break out it was swift and utterly ferocious.

Then, if unattached for the night you would simply bus back to The Hill and hang around unceasingly chatting, either at the small café just round the corner called the 'E and A', or some of us would cross the road to the small greasy spoon that stayed open late. There we would be regaled by endearingly eccentric Ralph Levene's crazy theories and profound knowledge of exotic literature.

It was around that time that I met the most extraordinary young man called Paul. With his flaming red hair beautifully Brylcreemed he soon became known as Ginger Paul. The man was forever posing, strutting and acting too flash for his own good. It was also about this time when we discovered the great and marvellous West End. Jazz and jive dominated the scene and in those hot, stuffy rooms Paul could be seen jiving in his blue immaculately cut suit and not a bead of sweat on him. Oh, how I envied him. On Sundays, we would go to the 51 Club off Little Newport Street.

This was a splendid, low cavernous room where you jived to the coolest jazz records of the day.

There were some really hot dancers around then whom I could never match since they were almost of professional status but it was a joy to watch them and when they danced the whole room stopped still, just gaping in sheer respect.

Early one autumn evening when I was just playing with Paul on one of the machines (the hockey game) a most unusual man strode in. He was short yet seemed to bear a huge head on his shoulders topped with a great frizzy mop. I never forgot the encounter. Paul said: "Les (as I was known then), this is Curly King." I stared half-bewildered by this creature, half-gnome, half-demon. Curly decided to check up on who was around The Hill, although it was still early evening.

So we accompanied him, or rather followed. Within minutes, there was a small phalanx of lads just walking with him from pillar to post as if he were some demi-god. Eventually word seemed to get round that "Curly", the Great Curly King was up and soon, as if from nowhere, he had a small following trailing behind him. Curly King seemed to haunt my young and even older years, he even entered my dreams, and seemed to be the apotheosis of what a young male should be. Ruthless, dynamic, charismatic, magnetic, fearless, all the attributes of the noble knight although to speak the truth he was anything but noble. But now, alas, like so many of that magical time he is gone.

Slowly, my school years behind me with hardly a friend to speak of from those wasted years at Hackney Downs, I gradually became bonded with the lost souls on The Hill. The drifters and dreamers who lounged at the back of the shtup house on Saturday afternoon listening to Frankie Lane ringing out those fruity sounds, "Jezebel" Blonde Nita with her bleached hair and mannish suits ruled the roost or sneaked a half jive when Phil was busy elsewhere. Bless you, Anita. Are you still with us?

There seemed to be a strict pecking order on The Hill and in the top rank were those who had proved themselves in some violent escapade and until you had done this you were merely tolerated and condemned to be a humble follower. Moisher, Ronnie Mitchell, and Harry Lee were the self-appointed triumvirate, the shtarkers under whose shadows we faithfully walked.

We admired the way they strutted, a kind of arrogant swing from the hips. Others wished to be part of the higher order, like Nigel who, with his brutish yet attractive face, frequently thrust himself into battles which he mostly lost but he had a brave go. Others were accepted merely because they were dazzlingly handsome like Joey Slavid.

His thick hair was piled high and he even smothered himself in after-shave powder and cultivated a deep baritone voice. We just stared at him and wondered what it must be like to be so beautiful and to have all the girls just panting for you. We thought of him as a movie star because he was an extra in the film business.

Part of The Hill's ritual was the Regent Cinema on Monday night and if we saw Joe Slavid on screen for even two seconds those who knew him would scream, leaving others bemused. On Sunday, it was the Super Cinema's turn to host us rowdy, raunchy kids and before the film even started we would be pacing around the cinema to see if there was a pair of girls just gagging to have some company. It was here that Harry Lee challenged my cousin Sid Bennet to a punch-up.

After the film, Harry waited outside and struck Sid before he even had his jacket off and Sid was badly injured. However, he took revenge months after and, diligently and in the best heroic tradition, took the bus from the East End every night to Stamford Hill and waited for Lee.

Lee was a formidable fighter and I feared for my cousin. However, Sid thrashed him soundly by wrestling him to the ground. Once here he bounced Lee's head on the stone pavement and then Harry said something I will never forget: "You might as well finish me off." I was so proud that I even immortalised Sid in my play, West.

I did eventually bond with one particular chap called Barry Wise. Barry had the most striking Sephardic features, was a sensitive being with an innately very tough streak. The first time I saw him he was engaged in a battle in the playground where he displayed such animalistic ferocity one could not help be both amazed and admiring. However, when he did his street punting selling three string diamante pearls out of a suitcase in Lewisham, I was very deeply impressed. He was a huckster, a salesman in the street, the most difficult, gutsy kind of work you can do, and I was the lookout guy.

He paid me a pound a day which was good money in those days. Barry was one of the very few who invited me to their homes and there I met his feisty dad who was a taxi driver and possibly a communist, as many were in those days.

Barry stayed my friend for many years till I broke off completely from Stamford Hill. We were a group that were the leftovers in some way. Our university started at The Hill, there we learned what we had to do. Some like Barry became a merchant seaman travelling the world. I, too, travelled to Europe, selling third-rate, tailor-made suits to the American Forces.

We all sought a way out in so many different ways. Some became multi-millionaires like Jack Gold who opened a chain of boutiques in and around Carnaby Street. Others fell into the only profession that would suit their temperament and became taxi drivers. I became an actor. I was playing Hamlet 20 years later and touring Israel in my own production. On a day off, I was walking down Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv's main thoroughfare when I saw, to my shock and astonishment, Curly King. He had emigrated to Israel, or escaped, care of some Jewish colleagues from The Hill. He had actually opened a small furniture shop since he learned how to make furniture in one of his prison spells. By another coincidence, the following day I was with some of my cast on Tel Aviv beach, when who do I see but Curly once more - this time with his suitable companion, a huge dog. I introduced him to some of my cast. My two worlds were colliding and I was somewhat shaken. As I was chatting away, and still feeling even after all those years a sense of complete awe in front of this man, his huge dog started to paw the sand away that I was standing on. He still possessed that total aura of complete confidence and menace. No wonder he was a minder for The Kray twins.

I left Stamford Hill behind me, though sometimes old colleagues drop in to see me when I have a play on. The Hill was a sizeable chunk of my life but, when I left it, I left it forever. However, I think back on those days with nothing less than a great sense of affection to all those who shared that unique time and I hope most of you are still alive and remember those crazy guys and girls. For some reason, I had a greater sense of belonging there and being part of that society than anything I have felt since.

And perhaps as I am growing older - I am now 77 - I value that time and all of you more than I can say. God Bless.

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