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Steven Berkoff: Offensive art is liberating

September 7, 2023 - 5:30pm

People in the arts are “beginning to self-censor” according to actor, director, and frequent on-screen villain Steven Berkoff. 

Speaking to UnHerd’s Florence Read, Berkoff emphasised the danger of self-censorship. “People are beginning to question their own ethics and morals,” he said. “They have to be careful not to offend.” This, for the actor, has a particularly stifling effect on “human consciousness”.

To avoid the fear of offence, Berkoff spoke of the importance of “writing down everything you feel” so that through such expression “we might be able to understand more about the fundamental values in life.”

Reflecting on his many appearances as a villain on stage and in film, Berkoff said that “we all want to be villains because we want to be anti-authoritarian.” Compared to the conformity which fills our lives, the villain “captures something that we all envy”.

In 2019 Berkoff took on the role of film producer and sex offender Harvey Weinstein in a play that he wrote himself. The reviews were “the most horrible [he had] ever received”, which, for him, indicated the lack of curiosity in the “beasts” and “horrors” from which we can learn. 

When asked if he is ever afraid to offend, Berkoff challenged that audiences are in fact offended by him: “I feel they’re enjoying it. To see an offensive play is wonderfully liberating!”

In the wake of the Hollywood writers’ strike, the playwright was asked whether he believed that technology has destroyed creativity. Not only did Berkoff agree that it has, he also said that it is a “curse on society”, with CGI a particular threat which at once puts “thousands of people out of work” and “corrodes the audience’s mind”.

How do we tackle such problems, all of which serve to limit artistic achievement and human flourishing? For Berkoff, talking is a good start. You can listen to part of the conversation above.


is UnHerd’s editorial trainee. 

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Arthur G
Arthur G
10 months ago

Our modern problem is that no one is offended by the actually offensive anymore. They’re offended by statements of reality.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
10 months ago
Reply to  Arthur G

Exactly. Well said.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
10 months ago
Reply to  Arthur G

Exactly. Well said. We’re not allowed to be offended by a video of fat middle-of-the-road singer Sam Smith dressed in BDSM gear pretending to drink people’s piss in a church, but we’re compelled to take offence if someone “misgenders” him.

Last edited 10 months ago by Richard Craven
Andrew Henrick
Andrew Henrick
10 months ago

Great to hear and see the enthusiasm and wisdom of Steven Berkoff. Thank you.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
10 months ago

This morning on the BBC, a 21-year-old Australian agreed with host Nicky Campbell’s suggestion that King Charles III should ‘take the knee’ because (like him apparently) her generation believes that their cause is to fight for ‘a just and equitable society built upon human rights’.
The media now provides all the material for satire that the arts can only dream of, ensuring that the sleep of reason (will alway) engender monsters.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
10 months ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

I can never decide whether Nicky Campbell is Smashy or Nicey. Probably Nicey. You could grease a V8 with the smarm.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
10 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

I believe he outed himself as the internet’s Mr X who turned out to be Hugh Edwards, such was his desire for attention.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
10 months ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

Thanks for quarantining “take the knee” inside quote marks where this ridiculous phrase belongs.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
10 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

It’s become increasingly rare to receive pleasant responses in these forums.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
10 months ago

He’s right. The woke are racist misogynist pimps for sadistic paedophilia, and creative artists should strive to offend them.

N Satori
N Satori
10 months ago

Much as I admire Steven Berkoff – I’ve seen several of his plays on the London stage – the following comment is a bit of an old chestnut:

Compared to the conformity which fills our lives, the villain “captures something that we all envy”.

Writers and actors always assume that the audience is made up of little people frustrated with their inhibitited lives and too timid to break free. Rather patronising. I almost never envy the villain. I prefer the hero who has the power, intelligence, strength of character and moral calibre to defeat the villain.
Incidentally, tlhe last film I can remember being genuinely offended by was way back in 1978. It was Derek Jarman’s Jubilee. To this day I still think there was some genuine strand of evil in that a movie and I would not watch it again.

Last edited 10 months ago by N Satori
Graeme
Graeme
10 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

Great comment. It’s always just pleasing to see Steven Berkoff, whose lascivious scowl feels like the motif of 1980s-2000s “arts”. But you’re right about the hoariness of the “you all love villains” trope; there’s a smattering of Virginia Woolf’s unbearable middle-brow middle-class “sweaty cheap seats” diatribe about it. And you’re precisely right about Jubilee. I, too, saw it once, sometime in the 1980s, and I would never watch it again.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
10 months ago
Reply to  Graeme

How about Richard 111 . I think the desire some people (especially women) have to prove the image of him in the Shakespeare play mere Tudor propaganda actually is the result of the charisma Shakespeare gives him as a villain .

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
10 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

I disagree. Even Milton after penning Paradise Lost had to acknowledge that the devil has all the best tunes.

Last edited 10 months ago by Richard Craven
N Satori
N Satori
10 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

All a bit too lofty and scholary for the likes of me Craven. But I guess that facing an eternity of never-ending goody-goodness a spirit might yearn for a bit of metaphysical mischief just for sheer relief.
I have heard that Milton’s Satan said: It is better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. Sounds a bit like sour grapes to me – still, if he did corner all the best tunes that’s a comprehensive raspberry blown Heavenwards.
Anyway, returning to the point of Steven Berkoff’s observation – which villain (apart from the ultimate villain, Satan) do you actually envy?

Katalin Kish
Katalin Kish
10 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

The evil being isn’t envied usually, but the acts they get to commit without punishment, the manifestations of power.

Like the staged impression of power, when tight columns of bikies ride on Harley Davidsons/Indian motorcycles, muffler silencers removed in Melbourne, Australia. Bikies in tip-to-toe disguises riding bikes with fake or unregistered license plates. Bikies make billions in the Australian drug-trade to the extent shipments are diverted from Europe and Asia to Australia. Victoria is a bike safe haven in Australia.
https://www.heraldsun.com.au/truecrimeaustralia/police-courts-victoria/victoria-failing-behind-in-antibikie-laws/news-story/be5a8d4db1e52daa277d526e7122dfba

Katalin Kish
Katalin Kish
10 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

I envy your experience N Satori.

Being forced into fighting Australia’s absurd crime reality 2009-current, I came across one person amongst likely thousands, who acted as the hero you describe: Senator Jacqui Lambie from Tasmania. She tried to fight with me, she got shot down in flames of course. I came across plenty of people who openly enjoyed/still enjoy the stalker ex-coworker’s sick psycho acts against me to this day. Circus, not just bread was used by the Romans to placate the population because it works.

A lifetime ago in Hungary I had a similar experience.

In highschool we all had to pay our dues via monthly membership fees and lip-service to the Communist Youth Movement as a condition for tertiary studies.

Since my family origins couldn’t be much worse under the communist system, I didn’t have much to lose, so when our class teacher asked us in a typical communist obedience affirming exercise what it meant for us to be part of the Communist Youth Movement, I answered honestly.

I was formally expelled from the Movement of course, with immediate effect from memory.

After the class I had the cringe-worthy experience of several classmates coming up to me to express their agreement with me – without any price to pay.

Having thus been liberated and also freed from the yoke of pretend communist leanings, I started a political seminar on my own for my class-mates, talking about current issues we all faced, based on what we experienced, and what managed to escape censorship in Hungary.

People could nominate a subject, research it, and then do a presentation, followed by a debate. This became so successful, the Communist Youth Movement dusted me off, took me back and confiscated the seminar, which promptly died 🙂

PS: I did get into tertiary studies.

Mark M Breza
Mark M Breza
10 months ago

Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.
Howard Aiken

Katalin Kish
Katalin Kish
10 months ago

Berkoff spoke of the importance of “writing down everything you feel” so that through such expression “we might be able to understand more about the fundamental values in life.”

Indeed. Writing is also a therapeutic tool for those of us who are forced to live with the trauma of ongoing, unpunished, devastating crimes enabled by Australia’s diabolic crime reality. As a devastated victim of a stalker ex-coworker’s ongoing crimes since 2009 in inner-Melbourne, even though I never even dated the ex-coworker, Australian-born women often told me to “turn my frown upside down” over the years. A fellow stalking crime victim talked to me in hushed tones of her own stalker ordeal also in Melbourne. To my horror she was obviously self-censoring, taking unpunished, devastating crimes against her as a damage to her value as a human being.
Anger is an asset, a source of immense energy. Values give shape and purpose to that energy.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
10 months ago

Uhhh, how did CGI put people out of work??? Has this guy ever looked at the credits of a modern film? The VFX teams are enormous. I think this guy just ignored anything he can’t see with his own eyes.

Come on in UnHerd, why not interview a greater range of people, maybe those who work in technology. Asking a guy like this about AI is clearly a waste of time, he didn’t even seem able to explain why he finds computers hard to use.