Steven Berkoff - who opens tonight in One Man, a double bill of two of his one-act plays - looked set for a life of petty crime, as a boy growing up in the East End of London, where he was born two years before the outbreak of the Second World War. In his most recent book, Diary of a Juvenile Delinquent, a memoir of his early years, he charts his journey from troubled and misbehaving youth to celebrated - if still combative - actor, writer and director.


“It was at Maidenhall School that I must have acquired a taste for acting since once a week our divinely attractive teacher would read us the story of Brer Fox, that canny creature who was always deceiving Brer Bear. We would then get up and act it out. Each week the teacher (who, I believe, had a soft spot for me) invited me to play the main role - which I did with apparent glee and unselfconsciousness as I completely identified with the fox character. After awhile I felt self-conscious about being singled out and that I should let another boy have a go at the lovely fox and so when as usual she asked me, I said this time I would play the bear. I remember she looked at me quizzically. For some reason it was the time we did the story…

“One of the most memorable times at Christian Street School was the last lesson on Friday afternoon when the adorable Miss Parry would read to us from The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This seemed to make a great impression on me for she read it so well and so convincingly that I was absolutely enrapt and at the same time learned of the enormous power of words and storytelling. In fact, we lived for words. We read, went to the library each week to take out our quote of books, listened to the radio on BBC every night and became hooked on the serials…

“Then it was over, school was finished… I had retrogressed into a delinquent demi-criminal class. A spotty-faced slob, I had no ambition nor had any ambition been stoked in me and I was to face the next five years of my life without it. It would be a desert, a wilderness but then, only then would it change since I believed I still had one small spark left inside of that would not go out. It kept me ever so slightly awake, but only just…

“We all have the genie deep within us that wants to escape, wants to sing and play, to dance and leap and love, to fly and soar and make magic. If the genie can’t find a way out, it will only drive us crazy, rummaging around our guts like a slug in the mud…

“Before the end of my stay (at Stamford House) a person of my faith - a Jewish social worker or even a young rabbi - came to see me… He asked what kind of things I liked to do and I said I liked dancing and that one of my favourite places was the Lyceum Dance Hall in the Strand. And then he said something that for some reason I have never forgotten, as if it struck some ancient bell with a giant thwack. He merely told me that the Lyceum, which of course I only knew as a dance hall, used to be a theatre years ago. I paid little attention to that comment at the time except to register surprise since I had no idea my favourite dance hall was once a theatre, yet something moved in the reptilian area of my brain. That comment stayed in my mind and to this day, I recall him saying it to me…

“So that was my agenda: I was determined to be famous but famous for something worthwhile, the nature of which had so far evaded me and I had no idea why I suffered from this ridiculous and obsessive desire. Maybe it was a reaction to the barren lands I had been wandering through for the last five years; perhaps I was determined to achieve some form of compensation. I would make something of my life - but how? So in the simple mindset of limited choices, I thought I would one day attempt to be a movie actor…

“On the base, I made friends and even had a young army couple to dinner that I had become pally with - the first time that I had ever entertained. I was free, liberated in mind and spirit and finding myself. The newly married pair took me to an amateur play put on by the services. I found it quite charming and again thought this didn’t look too difficult to do. Up until then, I had only thought of acting as something you mainly do in movies…

“The months were rolling past and I was getting to know quite a different type of human to my Neanderthal cousins around Manor House. Slowly, but surely I was pulling away from those old roots, even if in the future they would be a constant source of inspiration. Nothing will be wasted…

“I was a student, can you believe, a student, studying my art… And this craft would sustain me through thick and even thin for the rest of my life… I had arrived, I was there; never to look back, never to wonder, what shall I do? This is what I should do, this is what I should be: an actor.”


The above excerpts are taken from Diary of a Juvenile Delinquent, which is published by JR Books (hardback, £18.99). Steven Berkoff performs One Man - a double bill of two of his one-act plays, Dog and Tell Tale Heart, he latter adapted from an Edgar Allen Poe short story – at Riverside Studios from 12 to 23 April 2011. It’s followed in June by a season of solo shows titled "Berkoff Presents", which he will curate.