Steven Berkoff’s teenage obsessions: ‘I became very adept at jive'

The actor and playwright on the magic of Italian, French and American cinema, dressing up to go dancing and falling in love with mime

Italian neorealism

I loved Italian neorealist films as a teenager because they always featured somebody struggling to find themselves in a city. Miracle in Milan, directed by Vittorio de Sica, is a magical film about a young man who arrives lost and alienated but is gradually absorbed by an equally poor society that takes care of him. He finds amazing revelations in the simplest of things. I love the beginning, where it’s so cold, the sun comes out and all the people jump into the slightly warmer circle of heat. Then when the clouds move, they rush to follow the circle. It’s phenomenally simple, but it shows how even the poorest of people can depend on the simplest of pleasures.

I loved Bicycle Thieves, also directed by De Sica, about an impoverished worker who goes everywhere on his bicycle, putting up posters, until someone steals it. As a fairly poor young man, I felt intense empathy. I also loved La Strada by Federico Fellini, which was haunting. These Italian films were full of mystery, magic and inspiration and made even the smallest elements something to relish. I hardly watched any English films: they seemed a little dull in comparison.

American and French cinema

Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront.
Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. Photograph: Allstar/Columbia Pictures

I rarely went to the theatre as a teenager. It seemed very old and rather deadly. Maybe I was sitting too far back, but I was amazed how empty and thin it all seemed and how you had to strain to hear, compared with the movies. I began to understand theatre more after studying at drama school and learning the difficulties of movements, learning lines, communicating and gesture. But film was always my great love.

Shirley Anne Field and Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
‘Amazing’ ... Shirley Anne Field and Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Photograph: Ronald Grant

I especially loved the American movies of the time, such as A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, which I eventually staged myself. French cinema also appealed to me. Hiroshima Mon Amour is an astonishing movie, and I was madly in love with Le Trou by the fantastic French director Jacques Becker. That was real cinema to me. I rarely saw a British film until I was in my early 20s, when I suddenly found one I thought was amazing: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

Jazz, jive and classical

Watch Stan Kenton conduct

I have always loved jazz, because you can move and dance to it. I learned jive as a teen and I became very adept. I loved the movement and the elegance compared to rock’n’roll; it’s so ornate and clever. I’d go to dance halls where you dressed immaculately to parade your style. I was a big fan of musicians including Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, the Ink Spots and the wonderful Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.

Then I started to learn to love classical music. I’d go to HMV on Oxford Street in my lunchtimes to try out records in a booth. I discovered Darius Milhaud. I loved La Création du Monde, which describes the early stirrings of plants, the growth of trees, the movement of seas and the arrivals of humans on Earth. I’d never heard anything like it. On the reverse side of Milhaud was Aaron Copland. I discovered his El Salón México and Rodeo – tremendous, physically exciting pieces full of movement, dance and activity. I was quite precocious and always exploring. I loved Stravinsky’s Petrushka and some of the other wonderful experimental composers, such as Shostakovich.


Watch the trailer for Les Enfants du Paradis

I was fascinated by Les Enfants du Paradis, one of the great French films of all time. It was shot during the war and it’s about the theatre of mime. At the beginning, Jean-Louis Barrault does the most exquisite mime that I’ve ever seen, over the mistaken identity of a pickpocket. It is such an astonishing piece of silent cinema; it made me fall in love with mime and want to study it.

A woman called Claude Chagrin had moved to London. She was a student of Jacques Lecoq, one of the foremost mime teachers in the world. She held classes in London and I went every week for a year. Then I went for a summer course in Paris with the master himself. It helped me to understand more the mechanics of the theatre through movement and how so much can be expressed through an understanding of the symbols of movement. That was one of the great learning experiences of my life. I’ve loved mime ever since and it’s always been the backbone of my performances.

Art and poetry

The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. NO CROPPING
Radical brilliance ... The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Photograph: Alamy

I loved the impressionists as a teenager. The sweetness of Renoir always moved me. I also loved Van Gogh and Chagall, and Dalí was a great favourite; I always found him totally fascinating. But I also opted for the more radical and fell in love with Hieronymus Bosch and Bruegel. I find their paintings so incredibly detailed, with such phenomenal brilliance in their technique. I love Gustave Doré. His scenes of the slums of 19th-century London are astonishing.

I started writing poetry as a teenager and have recently gone back to it – I’m having a book published called Poems for the Working Class. It’s all about the terrible, funny, sarcastic and sardonic events of our modern age.


Goethe’s Faust fascinated me as a teenager. It’s an amazing play, but it’s very complicated, so it takes concentration. I was delighted to appear in Philipp Humm’s contemporary adaptation last year, The Last Faust. It’s about the temptation of someone who has surrendered all moral integrity to achieve power and success.

Trump is a perfect example of Faust. He’ll do anything to signal his decrepitude to the public. Like Faust, those who crave power, experience and sex sacrifice their souls. We see a lot of this today when people will do anything to achieve a limited thrill. This horrible Covid is the result of this Faustian pact to kill and taste anything to achieve some kind of enlightenment and relief. To me, the hunters who go to Africa and kill just for the thrill are the sickest people on Earth. The wet markets in China and Thailand are full of the horror of slaughtering animals, and now we’re paying for it.

The Last Faust is on Amazon Prime


Interview by Rich Pelley

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Miranda Richardson's teenage obsessions: 'I rescued a kestrel and became fascinated by birds of prey'
With the release of her new film Rams, the actor remembers her love of westerns and John Wayne, playing male parts at her all girls’ school and the thrill of frightening humour

As told to Rich Pelley

04, Feb, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
Miranda July's teenage obsessions: 'Bikini Kill were gods'
The Kajillionaire director on the allure of dripping honey, Jane Campion and Spike Lee, sex, lies and videotape, and her brother’s woodwork

Interview by Laura Snapes

08, Oct, 2020 @3:07 PM

Article image
Anthony Head’s teenage obsessions: ‘The Rocky Horror Show ignited something in my core’
The Buffy and Gold Blend actor, who stars in the new film School’s Out Forever, on his love for Judi Dench, Lord of the Flies – and playing Dr Frank-N-Furter

As told to Rich Pelley

21, Jan, 2021 @4:00 PM

Article image
Timothy Spall’s teenage obsessions: ‘For my art A-level I nailed up apples covered in pubic hair’
The actor on studying with the Sex Pistols, being in a Bowie tribute act, the appeal of Roxy Music, the help of teachers and the power of surrealism

As told to Rich Pelley

02, Sep, 2021 @1:17 PM

Article image
Sylvester McCoy's teenage obsessions: 'I was the twist king of Dunoon'
The actor reveals his early mastery of Chubby Checker’s dance craze, how he ferried Marlon Brando to his seat and had to cancel his plans to become pope

Rich Pelley

20, Nov, 2020 @10:00 AM

Article image
Aaron Eckhart’s teenage obsessions: ‘Pink Floyd saved my life’
The Hollywood star recalls his childhood in San Jose, Sydney and Walton-on-Thames, falling for Grease and Macbeth – and his enduring love for The Young Ones

As told to Rich Pelley

22, Jul, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
Ciarán Hinds' teenage obsessions: 'Van Morrison took music into a different dimension'
Our series in which stars recall cultural highlights of their youth continues with the Belfast-born actor remembering Van the Man, Midnight Cowboy and the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association

Interview by Rich Pelley

10, Sep, 2020 @1:26 PM

Article image
Juno Temple's teenage obsessions: 'Brandon Flowers was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen'
The actor, who stars alongside Justin Timberlake in Palmer, recalls her love of Eminem, the magic of Jean Cocteau and why she is fascinated by corsetry

As told to Rich Pelley

18, Feb, 2021 @3:45 PM

Article image
Martin Freeman’s teenage obsessions: ‘I still think that rude-boy skinhead look is hard to beat’
The Hobbit actor, who is back on TV in the sitcom Breeders, recalls sharp dressing on a budget, discovering Public Enemy and how Michael Caine got him into film

As told to Rich Pelley

27, May, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
Michael Smiley’s teenage obsessions: ‘I heard the Beat and came back to Belfast a rude boy’
The comedian and actor on dancing with his mother to Ray Charles, the power of Seamus Heaney’s poetry and how Richard Pryor showed him his future

As told to Tom Seymour

19, Aug, 2021 @1:09 PM