Autobiography is a tricky genre to get right, which may be why so many well-known people keep having another go at it. By my reckoning Tales from an Actor’s Life (Robson Press, £14.99) is Steven Berkoff’s third volume of autobiographical writings, although I might have missed one or two others along the way.
This one, though, is a little out of the ordinary. Written in the third person — he refers throughout to ‘the young actor’ — it tells a number of stories of his formative years ‘in the business’, of auditions failed, of rep tours endured, of disastrous productions walked out of, and of lessons learned, usually far too late to make any difference.
As an actor Berkoff is famously intense and uncompromising, and on screen at least, gives a forceful impression of someone who couldn’t care less whether anyone likes him. In print he is equally intense and uncompromising, but infinitely more vulnerable and self-questioning than you might expect. (It’s the classic actorly profile: huge ego, shaky self-esteem.)
What you won’t be surprised by is the wild, demonic energy of the writing. Savagely adjectival, coruscatingly adverbial, some of his sentences are nearly as long as this review. But it’s all wonderfully entertaining, a great open-hearted shaggy beast of a book, and it’s only 200 pages long.
One complaint: it doesn’t appear to have been copy-edited at all. Was that because Robson couldn’t be bothered, or were they too scared to change even a comma?