Actor and playwright Steven Berkoff is from the East End. He’s also a poet. I once gigged with him where he did several long AB rhymed poems that were about AA Gill, who’d recently been in the news for shooting a baboon.
West or Welcome To Dalston Junction is a play he wrote in 1983. In his author’s note Berkoff says that the play “is about courage: the courage to live according to your spirit, and not the guidelines laid down for you by others, to be true to yourself which may involve alienating others, but your truth is worth pursuing since it defines who you are.” Berkoff goes on to say that: “While the play is an allegory about demons we must defeat, it is also about an area of time and space called London, and specifically, Stamford Hill or Hackney, N16.” and to describe the violence of the area that he had witnessed.
The play was commissioned by the BBC but they rejected it. However, Channel 4 broadcast the play in 1984.
The play has many of the same characters of his 1975 play East, which is set in the 1960s.
In this scene from the Channel 4 production, Mike, the King of Stamford Hill, defeats Curly, the leader of the Hoxton Mob at a midnight fight on Hackney Marshes.
Berkoff lived on the Finsbury Park Estate, went to Hackney Downs school and the Stamford Hill Boys Club. In 2014 he told the Jewish Chronicle “… I would walk up to Stamford Hill and, before stepping onto the 253 bus, gaze somewhat wistfully across the road where the amusement pinball arcade with its perpetually playing jukebox had gathered its regulars, the evening gang that would hang around, strutting and preening. I longed to go there and see who all these young men and women were. What they were doing and how could I join them but I was too young and vapid, just a young prat going to Egerton road Hebrew classes to study for a Bar Mitzvah I would never have.
However, one day Malcolm offered to take me to ‘The Hill’ as it was called and hang outside the ‘Shtupp’ house, simply named since this is where you push or ‘shtupp’ the machines to make the balls hit the round electric pads that would increase your points. Sometime after I became a very familiar face I would play for a penny a point, which was quite a lot if you lost by invalidating your score with a ’tilt’ if your shtupping was too enthusiastic. Then ‘Phil’ the grubby white-coated change-giver might be inclined to ban you for a week or so and then you would have to stand outside the arcade in a form of public exile and not very pleasant.
Phil was always there controlling the young crowd and would slowly circle the interior of the arcade with one hand in his pocket rattling the pennies. He was a decent man once you got to know him although he seemed half dead. Bill, the owner, sat in the front presiding over his beautiful American machines like a lord of the manor. He sat behind a simple kiosk where he sold Pepsi and sweets. He wore thick glasses and never acknowledged any of us and seemed to wear the same expression from noon till night. He had a daughter who, on rare occasions, was seen sexily decked out with an impossibly slim belted waist and brazenly high-pointed boobs as though she was a movie star.
This was the place. This was The Manor. The Shtupp House was merely an iconic sign. A kind of hallowed spot where you would gather and not too early lest you fall into that ghastly trap of just lingering around, watching out for nothing but the emptiness of your own life.”
The play is based on Beowulf. In his 2010 book Diary of a Juvenile Delinquent he describes an incident in his youth “So a ‘public’ battle was arranged by the heavies for their amusement and one night in early spring, when it was still light we all walked to Clapton Pond… Yes, it did feel like a tale of ancient chivalry: Beowulf waiting for the Beast”.
Amusingly David Schwimmer said his most memorable theatrical experience was “playing Mike in West… with my theatre company in Chicago”.