I have just had the unfortunate experience of catching an interview which Stephen Berkoff gave to London Live television. Sitting on their sofa in his cut-off leather jacket looking like some faded retro version of Alfred Doolittle, Berkoff was holding forth as to how all young actors are "ghastly, boring, and know nothing"
Let's stick to the positives here. The first is that the interview was on London Live, a channel with viewing figures so low that Berkoff would have had a bigger audience if he'd given this diatribe on the top of a London bus. Secondly, he does lament the lack of opportunities for young actors to gain experience in theatre. The British repertory system has shrunk enormously and it is no longer a predetermined career path for drama school graduates to go out into the world for a year or two and gain experience on provincial stages. It is no good however just be moaning that fact. Times, situations, and Theatre change, and what eminent figures such as Berkoff should be doing is focusing on how to help today's graduates make a career out of their training, and get the opportunities that they need to become the sort of actors that Berkoff would like to see.
I'm not sure how often this bitter old Berkoff actually engages with young actors. I'm not sure how many he works with, (Imagine having to spend a day on set with this old bore) but I'm pretty sure he hasn't had anything to do with any of the graduates I've had the pleasure of working with over the last few years.
Having mentored four young winners of the Alan Bates Award, I am constantly impressed by how hard young actors work in those first two or three years out of drama school in order to get some payback on their training and turn their dreams into a career. Like Mr Berkoff, I had the luxury of starting my state funded career with a couple of years of repertory work. It was a great joy. This is not an option for young actors these days They aren't staying away from the theatre - there simply aren't the jobs for them - something that may have escaped Mr Berkoff's notice. Repertory jobs are few and far between. Much more likely that a career these days will begin with a few days on a daytime soap or drama, or in a room above a pub on an unpaid fringe job.
It will be attacked with all the verve and commitment with which Berkoff attacked his paid repertory work, but it will no doubt be done in many cases around the demands of another job taken on to pay the bills. These days, young actors have to concentrate on a complete circle of work in order to exist, and only part of that circle will be acting.
I agree entirely with Berkoff that this means today's young actors can be deficient in some skills. When you're not on stage every night, you're not building that vocal power and technique you will require to fill large theatres. It's not for the want of trying however. That's why many young actors and graduates engage very successfully with organisations such as the Actors Centre in order to hone their skills and to remain job ready. if I had just spent £27,000 plus on my training, I think I would be calling out "let me get a part", which Berkoff insists is the war cry of today's graduate. They know it's not a right however, but they exist in a different world. A world that Berkoff seems massively out of touch with.
You're right Mr B. They would be better off knowing their theatre history and knowing from whence our long tradition of British stage acting comes. They should also know who the actors are who have helped to make British stage acting acknowledged as the best in the world. I would definitely expect anyone entering the "Alan Bates award" at the Actors Centre to know who Alan Bates was. Especially as they're getting a £3000 prize bundle with his name on it. Donated by top brands who care about the future of these young actors. And when asked "Who was Alan Bates?", the best young actors do know. Perhaps we should ask them "Who was Steven Berkoff ?"
What these young people don't benefit from is being trashed by older peers who should be offering a hand down to help them up, rather than reaching out and squashing their hopes and dreams. As part of the Bates award we have a mentoring program at the Actors Centre entitled "You and Me" where successful working actors such as Anita Dobson and Joseph Millson partner up with a Bates finalist for a year as a mentor. It's a way of sharing viewpoints and for both sides to learn a little something.
Perhaps it was people helping you, Mr Berkoff, who helped to create the arena for your brilliant work as actor and dramatist. If your elders had treated you, as you are treating the future talents of today, our experience would be much the poorer.
Perhaps you might want to offer yourself as a mentor to one of our finalists this year Mr Berkoff and do something useful. I suspect not. Perhaps a red-faced rant trashing the optimism of the young is all you're good for these days and if so, it's time you retired with a cup of Horlicks, a pair of slippers, and found a sense of hope for the future.
The Alan Bates Award 2016 Final will be held on Thursday May 5th at the Actors Centre. Entry is now closed for this year.
Paul Clayton's new book "The Working Actor" will be published on May 5th by Nick Hern Books.
Original Berkoff interview seen here.