My Pop Life #221 : Let’s Dance – David Bowie

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Let’s Dance – David Bowie

For fear your grace should fall
(Let’s dance)
For fear tonight is all
(Let’s sway)
You could look into my eyes
(Let’s sway)
Under the moonlight, this serious moonlight

Early 1983.  I am living in Finsbury Park with dear Mumtaz, under the eaves of the top floor on Blackstock Road.  Downstairs is Laurie Jones, a lifelong communist who supports Tottenham Hotspur, but also has a season ticket for Arsenal.  He watches football every Saturday as a result.  I will write a piece on Laurie.  Below him is Shirley, a Jamaican gentleman who tends the blues club in the basement.  Up in the top room, a bedsit which is the length of the house, Taj is doing legal exams, I am starting out on an acting career, and I’ve just finished a production of John Godber‘s expressionist adaptation of A Clockwork Orange at The Man In The Moon on the King’s Road with various Yorkshire ActorsPaul Rider, Peter Geeves, Andy Winters.  Two years earlier in 1981 I’d done an adaptation of The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari with these fellas which toured the UK and ended up at The Dominion Theatre in Tottenham Court Road as part of Bill Nelson’s Invisibility Exhibition.  Both productions were non-naturalistic, and partly took their inspiration from Jerzy Grotowski and Steven Berkoff.

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I think this was 1982

I’ve snaffled an agent from A Clockwork Orange having written to every single agent in the book with my photo and CV like you had to in those days.  David Preston had come to see the show and signed me up.  I was young, green and full of beans and this was my first agent so I was grateful.  David Preston had an office in Dean Street, a walk-up to a camp crimson velvet-curtained den where he presided over his boys.  I walked up to see him one day because I still got a weekly digest called PCR – the Professional Casting Report – and I’d read that my hero Steven Berkoff was auditioning for his new play, West.

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Steven Berkoff

Yes my hero.  When I decided to act for a living (detailed in My Pop Life #140)  – I’d seen one of his shows – East.  It blew me away.  Expressionist yobby Cockney Shakespeare like nothing else on the English Stage.  The language, the committed performances, the extraordinarily huge and expressive performances.  Hooked, I sought him out and in the subsequent years saw The Fall Of The House Of Usher at the Cottesloe and his one-man show A Tell-Tale Heart and Dog.  I think I’m right.  I’d seen three shows before I went for the West audition.

Back in the velvet cave I demanded that David Preston got me in there.  It was compulsory !  And to be fair he did get me an audition.  I can’t remember where it was but perhaps at The Donmar Warehouse.  We were seen in groups of four at a time which was odd to start with.  There he was, larger than life, a dark buzzcut cockney educated jewish voice explaining that we had all witnessed a terrible but exciting & bloody fight, and all we had to do was describe it in our own words to the gang when he pointed at us.  Bang.  Naturalism was out. Having seen the work I kind of felt that it was impossible for me to go over the top. Full cockerknee and ultraviolence courtesy of Clockwork Orange.  Male testosterone with thuggish eloquence.

I got it.  I cannot recall the phone call, or the recall, or whatever the details were, but I was cast in West.  Some time in early 1983 I found myself in a Kentish Town rehearsal room with the others : Rory Edwards playing the lead, Mike, Sue Kyd playing his girl, Sylv, John Joyce playing dad and Stella Tanner playing mum.  And three other fellas. Bruce Payne, Ken Sharrock and Steve Dixon. We were “everyone else”.  Which meant…?

Right lads.  Any part that isn’t Mike, you read those lines.  Just jump in when you feel like it OK?  Let’s go.

Bruce jumped right in and read the first TWO PAGES before I managed to elbow him aside as he drew breath, intervene and read a portion myself, then Ken jumped in, then Steve.  And so it went on, Bruce with the loudest mouth and most focussed ego, and me with the next and so on.  It was fucking exhausting.  Like a trial by combat, with words.  We got to lunch and we’d read the whole play.  It was a fantastic piece.

Well done everyone. Take an hour for lunch.  Lads, whatever lines you just read – they are your lines. OK thanks.”

WHAT???

But it was true.  The trial by dialogue had become Steven’s lazy way of dividing the lines between us.  Bruce had 50%, I had 30%, Ken and Steve had 10% each.  To our credit we all accepted it immediately, bonded as a gang, and got down to putting the play on its feet.  Bruce Payne was a smooth handsome blond from London with expressive hands, a student of Berkoff’s style and mannerisms.  Fancied himself.  Ken Sharrock was a scouser with a barrel chest and a deep growl which he started to convert into East End cockney.  Steve Dixon was smaller, chirpy & quick but with a vicious edge when he wanted.

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Rory Edwards was a tall, dark and yes handsome martial-arts specialist who rode a motorbike and black leathers.  I would work with him some 12 years later in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe for the BBC where we would play brothers – me as Prince John and him as Richard the Lionheart, the Crusader.  He was born to play these kinds of heroic parts.  Berkoff used him a lot in the 1980s, I remember seeing him as Jokanaan in Salomé, at the National Theatre with a long beard and matted hair.  Great actor.

Susan Kyd was a shapely red-head with excellent cheekbones and a beehive hairdo.  She gave as good as she got, and she got it between the eyes from Berkoff, who is not known for his kind, gentle manner.  He would berate her in the rehearsal room and she would snap something straight back whereupon he’d look at us and sneer “Mouthy Cow“.  Sue would snort in derision. She was pretty impressive.

The parents were both really sweet.  Stella Tanner, playing Mum, was a face, from Dixon of Dock Green, Corrie, and countless other TV shows.  She took Sue under her wing off-stage and was quite devastatingly hilarious because of her understanding of character.  She had some fantastic lines.  John Joyce had been with the Ken Campbell 24-hour play The Illuminatus which also spawned Bill Drummond of The KLF (My Pop Life #220). John was a gentle vague but kind soul who liked a puff, and was also hilarious, though not always when he chose to be.

So there we all were.  I cannot fully recall the absolute thrill of working with Steven Berkoff on his own play, of speaking his words, raising my game to unheard of levels where I felt positively uncomfortable, and still trusting the result.  A whole different kind of acting.  I wanted Berkoff’s approval and did my utmost to get it with my acting decisions.  I think we all felt the same.  Act Two opened with a kind of song by The Lads – Bruce, me, Ken and Steve – who played the Hoxton Mob as well as the Stamford Hill Gang.  Ken was the Hoxton Mob leader.  We were so keen that we would get into the rehearsal room an hour early at 9.00am to rehearse this scene without Steven Berkoff present, eventually revealing to him the “thing” that we had made.  A kind of flailing cockney machine of oiks, arms, elbows and arses thrusting with fuck gutteral Gertcha engine noises and “you what – you what?“.  Steven was delighted and said “keep working on it boys“.

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How The Hoxton Mob appeared in the C4 version of “West” with prosthetic make-up and Ray Burdis

The wardrobe fitting was a visit to an East End tailors in Bethnal Green called Cooper & Stiles, 390a Hackney Road ‘since 1954’. We were in the finest light 1960s-styled tailoring with snazzy shoes and thin ties.  I thought I’d landed.  I think I probably had to be fair. We looked like the dog’s bollocks.

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When we got to the Donmar for technical rehearsal we realised that we would be working on a seriously raked stage – one platform at the back with ten chairs facing out in a line, then a vicious sloped stage that everyone had to stand in action poses on to remain upright.  When our scenes onstage finished we would walk back to the chairs and sit facing the audience like statues.  Very Expressionist.  Berkoff had studied with Jacques Lecoq in Paris, who taught physical theatre and mime, Ariane Mnouchkine & Simon McBurney are among the alumni.  I’d seen the great Polish director Tadeusz Kantor at the Riverside Studios in 1981 doing his astonishing show Weilopole Weilopole, which was a stunning piece of imaginative physical theatre – and I’d become exposed to the theories of Jerzy Grotowski another Pole who wrote the influential book Towards A Poor Theatre in 1968.  This argued that theatre shouldn’t compete with film but concentrate on what was unique to the form – actors playing live in front of an audience.  What emerged was total theatre, using your body alone to suggest doors, cups, weapons or motorbikes. The power of the imagination.  Writer and director John Godber was one of the English practitioners of this kind of theatre back then including his production of A Clockwork Orange.   So were his protégées The Yorkshire Actors.  Devotees of Berkoff, naturally.  We were in that tradition in West.  A Black Box, actors and words and audience.  I fucking loved it.  A live musical and percussive accompaniment.   It was my full professional debut onstage – which is to say I was actually getting paid full whack to act in a play, written and directed by my hero.

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Ken, Bruce, Rory, Steve, Ralph – the Stamford Hill gang

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Two dressing rooms – boys, and girls.  It was terribly exciting.  We opened to great fanfare and burned it up.  Great reviews, suddenly we were the hot ticket in town, and we settled in for a five month run at The Donmar Warehouse in London’s West End.  It’s a tiny theatre and tickets were snapped up.  Word would trickle round – “Elvis Costello is in” , “Danny Boyle“, “Madness“.   David Bowie’s Let’s Dance was the song of the year, a thumping bouncy riff-tastic disco bop which started like The Isley Brothers’ Twist & Shout as played by The Beatles and finished like the Nile Rogers funk stomp which it actually was.  A Monster Tune.

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Then the curdle began.  The show was too long so Steven decides to make cuts.  My solo moment, doing the Berkoff walk on the spot, suit jacket on one finger over the shoulder : “walking home alone beneath the stars, through Stamford Hill down Amherst Road to Finsbury Park…” suddenly has a sharpened guillotine hanging over it.  “Please don’t cut that speech” I plead with Berkoff, “I live in Finsbury Park…”  He relents and the speech stays in.   A victory.  Other stuff got trimmed.  Every night before we went on Bruce would recite his entire part aloud until we kicked him out of the dressing room and he did it in a downstairs corridor.  Then Bruce started to manspread in his chair at the back when Mum & Dad were on, his knee and elbow forcing my body into contortions to avoid pain.  One night I resist with a stage whisper Fuck Off Bruce! and push back and he jumps two seats down and freezes.  A couple of scenes later we’re doing the gang scene in the toilets having a slash, backs to the audience, miming giant python knobs a la Berkoff and “who’s got a tanner for the jukebox?” as I dig deep and flick the imaginary coin across the heads of the gang who watch it arc across the stage to Bruce who catches it and pumps it into the slot. Not tonight. He pulled the coin out of his own pocket in a strange revenge moment and my flicked mimed coin lands “on the floor”. A chill went down my spine.  It sounds like a cliché but that is exactly what it felt like.  I realised that I could not trust Bruce onstage anymore.   The spell was broken and it became more tense, less magic.  But the play always takes over.  And what a play.  What words.  John Joyce would have a huge spliff before the Wednesday matinee every week then walk the plank live onstage getting fluffs and laughs in equal measure.  He would then spend the rest of the week trying to recapture the elusive laughs to little avail.

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Bruce Payne, Steve Dixon, Ralph Brown, Ken Sharrock @ Limehouse

Offstage I was going to Pineapple Dance Studios a couple of times a week and doing routines in that hotbox of spangle and leg-warmers.  What a blur it all is now. Walking around Covent Garden, Earlham Street, Neal Street then going into work for a testosterone-fuelled assault on the audience, a totally non-naturalistic Shakespeare-laced East-End tragedy of rage and tenderness and violence.  Steven was a difficult guy to get to know, but he pulled one of the great performances of my life out of me.  I wanted to please him, I needed his approval. I admired his work so much, his challenge to the audience, to the theatre establishment, to the actor.  He is the real deal.

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casual photobomb by Director John Frankau 

The show got picked up for the brand new Channel Four, and filmed at Limehouse Studios on the Isle of Dogs after we’d closed.  John Frankau directed.  It wasn’t as good as the play since it was trimmed quite a lot but it was a good craic.  We were measured for new 60s suits and I still have mine.

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Then, like in all shows, we scattered to the four winds.  Bruce and I’s relationship never recovered fully from that day, but he had immense early success as an actor and we ended up meeting again in Beverley Hills in the 90s, and Ouarzazate in the 00s.  Rory Edwards came in and out of my life like people do, a man of mystery and romance.  We met him at Heathrow on his way to St Lucia with his wife Julia Ormond one day.  I have no idea where he is now.  Ken Sharrock and I worked at the Royal Court the following summer in an incredible play called Panic! by Alan Brown, directed by Danny Boyle.  We played brothers, and Ken’s father died during the run. I remember him weeping backstage before we went on and I hugged him as he whispered “Use it, use it” as his cue approached.  For another post.

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Ken came to see me playing Macbeth at The Everyman in Liverpool (see My Pop Life #108) and gave me an hour of much-needed insight and support as I fought my way through that production, that life-changing experience that put me off the stage for 20 years and more.  He passed away in 2005.  Steve Dixon gave up acting a few years later.  (The internet tells me he is a professor and President of LaSalle College of the Arts in Singapore!)  John Joyce passed away in 2009. Where is Stella?  I think she passed in 2012. But I’m still happily in touch with Sue Kyd, who joyfully came to my 60th with legend Doña Croll and I spent a lovely evening with her last year when I went back to London to see Jenny in Congreve’s The Way Of The World at – The Donmar in 2018.  It was great to see Sue and hang out at her wonderfully located Covent Garden pad within touching distance of the theatrical & historical London she loves so much.

And Steven Berkoff.  We’ve stayed in touch through the years since then.  First the cast had been to his Limehouse pad on the river and met Clara his lovely partner, had drinks, talked shit.   The usual.  Later I got a phone call from my agent about 18 months after West had closed.  Steven was doing a new play of his called Sink The Belgrano at the Half Moon Theatre and would I audition for it?  I called Steven immediately.  “Hello Ralph” he rasped in his educated London growl, “How are you?“.  I told him I’d been asked to audition for his play that week – he said – “Ralph obviously it goes with saying that I know you and your work, and you don’t need to come in for that.”  I said thanks and hows your father, and I did not go to the audition which was the following day.  And I Never heard anything about the show since.  Haha.  Always go to the audition folks!

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A short time after that he called me to come and see a rehearsal of his one-man show Harry’s Christmas which is a sad tale of an old cantankerous git “celebrating” Christmas alone.  It was very bleak yet funny.  I gave him some thoughts.  He just needed an eye on it, and I was honoured to be asked, but my fantasy of getting a directing credit, and shepherding it to an opening was dashed into mirthless smithereens on my ego floor.

I’d see him in Brighton from time to time as he has a flat on the seafront and he’d spend weekends there with Clara.  We memorably had dinner with David Bowie one night when Steven & Bruce were performing Greek in St Martin’s Lane – scrawled into this blog at My Pop Life #54.  I saw Decadence with Steven & Linda MarloweMetamorphosis at The National with Tim Roth as Gregor.  And then he did a touring show at the Dome in Brighton in 2007, the Tell-Tale Heart, Dog, The Actor.  Jenny and I went backstage afterwards and he was all smiles and champagne and grace.

Then finally, in spring 2018, Mark-Anthony Turnage‘s opera “Greek“, with a libretto taken from Berkoff’s play, was at BAM, just down the road from where we live in Brooklyn. I bought a ticket and emailed Steven to see if he was coming.  He hadn’t decided.  In the end I watched it alone, and marvelled.  Steven didn’t come. Well he is now 82 years old.  I was proud for him all over again.   I’d love to have worked with him again, but it hasn’t happened.  That how it is right.  It’s life.  People come into your space and make their mark, have their moment, and leave you changed forever.

 

Steven Berkoff as I knew him in 1984 after we’d filmed West for C4:

Steven performs his monologue “Actor”:

Let’s Dance the original video filmed in Australia :

The most recent thing I could find :

 

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