I passed the 11-plus and got an automatic scholarship to Raine’s Foundation Grammar School in Bethnal Green, East London. Before that, I went to a primary school in nearby Stepney: Christian Street School. My first really good teacher was there. Her name was Miss Parry. She was gentle, smiling, inquisitive and utterly charming. I would do anything for a teacher who communicated with me with sensitivity and care, and Miss Parry did.
On Friday afternoons, she would read to the whole class a chapter from a particular book. She once read The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. We were all captivated for the whole hour as she spoke carefully and expressively. It was totally mesmerising, better than any film or television programme.
At primary school, you more or less had the same teacher for every subject, but at Raine’s Foundation you had a different teacher for each subject, which felt like a more professional way of learning.
I found Raine’s enchanting and saw it as a rite of passage to being a grown-up. I adored English and French and, to a certain extent, art. I can’t remember my French teacher very well but I enjoyed his lessons enormously. It seemed to me a form of magic – changing an English word into a French one. I was number one or two in the French class and in my school report the teacher wrote: “Top boy, very good boy indeed!”
Mr Chivers was the teacher who had the greatest impact on me at Raine’s. His best qualities were his incredible patience, overriding elegance and beautiful way of speaking. When he spoke, it was so beautifully enunciated; it was like hearing music and so you paid attention to him. Mr Chivers also lifted his head when he spoke, as if he were honouring the English language and inciting the gods to give him inspiration. In lessons, he didn’t just deal with nouns, adjectives and pronouns but encouraged creative writing.
Everything Mr Chivers said was enlightening. He would tell us: “Be patient with yourself, don’t rush things, don’t be afraid to ask.” Mr Chivers reassured us that even if we didn’t understand something initially, we would get it with repetition.
Mr Chivers was married with children and was probably in his forties. He was a handsome man with blue-grey eyes and slightly silver hair. He taught me for two years from 1948 until 1950. After school, I would sometimes walk with Mr Chivers to the bus stop, which for me was a moment of great satisfaction because he was an amiable and dignified man, who never lost his rag, unlike some teachers. We used to talk about everything. When I told him that my family had lost our home during the Second World War, he was very interested.
I then went to Hackney Downs Grammar School after the council moved my family from modest accommodation in East London, designated for slum clearance, to a very pleasant council house in Manor House, North London.
I so detested Hackney Downs. The teachers were bullying, harassing, menacing and sometimes sadistic. My French teacher was fond of hitting students with the eraser used to wipe the board.
All the interest I had in literature and learning was crushed within a year of going to Hackney Downs. I left school at 15, in 1952, as soon as I legally could and did a series of odd jobs working in offices.
I had first decided I wanted to become an actor at 10; by 21, I was studying acting.
During the course of my career, I came across Mark Chivers, a major television producer. Mark came to see a play of mine at the Donmar Warehouse – he liked the play and offered to produce it on TV. I asked Mark if he was related to Mr Chivers, who used to teach. Mark said he was his son. It was an incredible connection, one in a million.
Steven Berkoff was talking to Adeline Iziren. His latest film, North v South, which focuses on rival criminal underworlds in the north and south of the UK, is out now in cinemas across the country
Born 3 August 1937
Education Christian Street School, Raine’s Foundation Grammar School and Hackney Downs Grammar School, London
Career Author, playwright and director, as well as a noted actor famed for his theatre work and for villainous roles in hit films such as Octopussy, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Beverly Hills Cop