Steven Berkoff: Fighting and jiving in the East End inspired my first play

The playwright's new book traces his theatrical career. In this extract he recalls the East End upbringing that inspired his first play


I called my first original play East, not just because it was set in the East End of London, but also because east was where the sun rises, east sides of cities are where the immigrants first land when escaping from their rotten hellholes in Russia and Romania. My own grandparents fled in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

They first landed at the eastern ports of London, and once they set foot on east London soil they stayed. Then grew the dynamic working- class societies in the slums and ghettoes of East London.

The desires of second- generation immigrants were simple, but no less passionate for that. Our wealth was minimal, and in consequence the things which brought us the most divine pleasures were uncomplicated. The young men simply revelledin each other’s company, and petty differences were solved with violence of language if not of bodies.

We were a post- war generation who felt that sex had only just been discovered, and our greatest joys were in the perpetual hunt for the ladies,whom we pursued with such passion lest it would suddenly become illegal. For our pastime nothing could be more enthralling than to master the mysteries of “jive”… which we pursued endlessly until we became the masters of that intricate art.

But following on closely after that was the need to adorn ourselves in the height of fashion, and nothing was more thrilling than to save for at least a year to have the money to enter a tailor’s shop and be measured for a suit. To stand there and be measured for the suit of your dreams and then return at least two or three times for fittings.

At that time I wore stiff collars which were detached from our shirt until we resembled little Lord Fauntleroys. Then on the weekends we strutted to our palace of delights, the Lyceum dance hall (since restored to its original use as a theatre) in the Strand. We were utterly different from those suburban yokels who also called themselves “Teddy Boys” but whose style was anything but sharp, as we were. They looked like poor parodies in their huge shirt collars and “Slim Jim” ties and thick crepe- soled shoes. Yes, we did dance the “jive”, but it was our own style which had the suave movements of an eighteenth- century minuet.

I, of course, had no money to even think about possessing a car, nor, frankly, the desire. My method of locomotion had to be a motorbike, although this fulfilment came many years later. I nevertheless included a motorbike scene in the play, and this actually became one of the production highlights although I had never ridden one before. I had to buy a motorbike manual to glean the relevant technical information.

East was largely made up of monologues, that were then linked together through the device of a fictionalised “family”. They were by no means my family, but the stock characters of the typical English working- class family with all their frustrations and prejudices but seen through the eyes of an outsider or an immigrant.

“Mum” was a simple character I had observed in my East End early life. And was more of a caricature. As I recall the mums in our East End street, they were after a while almost sexless. Brutalised by indifferent husbands, with poor wages and drugged by a constant watch of brain- numbing TV. There was not the faintest vestige of feminism about them with their headscarves and clod- hopping shoes. Mum was a pitiful sight and yet at the same time she did have an imagination and keenly observed a life out in the wider world which was denied her.

The parents in East were simple to the extent of grossness and “Dad” was an out and out thug who revelled in the escapades of the Nazis.

When I first wrote East, my mandate to myself was that it should have no holds barred, no restriction but to speak freely. Without restraint as might a teenager to his closest filth- raking, “chinas” or “mates” … to be bold to write in a way that had seldom, if ever, been done before. Seeing that my raison d’être for this piece was to let out the most exciting moments, the most savage times, the most glorious times, the most, the most, and I let it all pour out.

Then I took a good hard look at what I had written and decided that it needed to change. With all its vulgarity it needed some elegance, and so I started to rewrite much of it in a free verse style, which I felt gave it more of a savage wit since writing in verse invites you to play with language, to let it strut about a bit.

At the beginning I needed to start with a clear purpose to introduce the players and show thebackground whence they hailed.

I was thinking of my own environment where I used to hang out with the lads of Stamford Hill. There was a cinema just round the corner from an amusement arcade. There was an alleyway just before the cinema called the “Super”, and this is where the lads would go to settle their differences.

My cousin Sid had one almighty punch up there with a well- known “tearaway” from Stamford Hill. I was privy to this. I have never forgotten it. It was heroic and of course my cousin, although young, thoroughly vanquished the enemy.

To my young mind Sidney was heroic since he was a mere stripling of 16 and his opponent was a well- known “bullyboy” of 18 or 19 . He had assaulted Sid as he was taking his jacket off to prepare for a challenge. It took him several weeks for his face to heal. Sid then challenged Harry for an equaliser. I don’t believe anyone had ever challenged him before.

Sid’s older brother Willy, who was a ju- jitsu expert, trained him, since this would be the only way of beating his opponent Harry, who had a monstrous punch. Every night Sid and Willy bussed to Stamford Hill, where the battle was going to be, and waited in a shop doorway for Harry to turn up. I believe Sid would have waited forever.

Well, eventually Harry was obliged to face the music and accept the challenge, and a group of us went round the back of the ‘Super’ cinema.

Never had my young heart beat so fast. Sid was my adorable cousin and I loved him, never more so than now. Sid thrashed him. Ronny Mitchel, another Stamford Hill tearaway, actually stepped forward to stop it, but Willy quickly interjected with

“Don’t interfere, Ronny!” Sid had been avenged. That night is seared upon my brain forever.

Probably this was in my mind when I wrote the beginning of East.

A World Elsewhere by Steven Berkoff is published by Routledge. He will be speaking about it for Jewish Book Week on February 29 at 7pm

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