The Leavings of Liverpool
by Steven Berkoff
Weekend Guardian, 4-5 May 1991
Liverpool Playhouse Theatre is dying on its feet with a huge debt to help it sink into the ground. When it’s gone it will be wiped off the face of the earth and a new concreate supermarket erected on its prime site.
I have been asked to save it, along with a few other performers who will be appearing in a charity line-up. The venue is the Empire Theatre, Liverpool. I said, “Sure I would be glad to, I will perform a piece out of my play, Decadence.”
I imagine there will be a few other actors up there who, like myself, cut their teeth at the Playhouse. I played Bamforth, the belligerent barrack-room lawyer, in the The Long And The Short And The Tall there in 1966, directed by the great, gutsy and adorable David Scase. I had some good reviews and I ate breakfast in a little cafe across from the Playhouse before getting into the theatre about 8.30am, so I’d be warmed up by the time the rest of the cast rolled in at 10am. I was a keen lad then.
I don’t know what happened to the rest of the actors but Warren Clark nowadays plays heavies on TV.
I’m on the train passing anonymous grey stations with names like Stretchford. Then we pass a deadly station called Aston. The terrain gets ghastlier as semi-detached houses chase each other for what seems like miles, punctuated by the odd flying saucer that has landed moth-like on the wall, as if it’s sucking the juice out of the house. Barbed wire fences, a huge factory for Goodyear tyres, a giant chimney, some horses grazing on some sooty-looking grass, much rubbish and wasteland. Orwell springs constantly to mind.
On a train, you slick through the back-end of towns and see the back yards; this is the cheapest land, where they keep the factories. A car ride doesn’t have these long, slow pauses where you can peer over George Orwell’s red-handed lady trying to clear a bloked drain with a piece of stick, an image which stays in the mind forever, a down-trodden, grey, sooty, miserable, underpaid, working-class England.
From across the aisle a fairly simple-looking soul bobs his head to the trash eminating from his earphones. The tinny soud that leaks out has a raspy, nasty noise like a wasp loose in your head. He is armed with a couple of Newcastle brown ales.
Pass another huge warehouse with boldy printed HENRY VENABLES. Wonder if it’s any relation to the Venables in William Butler’s The Way Of All Flesh. It’s such an odd name, only one syllable away from venerable, solid, Victorian and full of good value. No wonder he chooses to have it stamped bold as brass for the passing trains.
We pass a graveyard for cars and fields caked in rubbish.
I didn’t know that trains were so good now, not having travelled Intercity for some years. Little paper carrier-bags for your sarnies and coffee, which are delicious. At Euston Station, baguettes are lifted with plastic tweezers into your bag. No skin to food, which is quite right. Unlike my grotty local bagel house where a cracked-nailed lady happily smears butter on my open bagel and smudges half of it on her hand, which then is craped up and spread over my bagel. Ditto with cream-cheese.
Then with her well-greased finger she peels off some grafts of smoked salmon from a pack and arranges them on my roll which is then closed and put into a bag. The same greasy, cracked, fishy fingers grab my dirty notes or quid coins from my hot sweaty pockets which she thrusts into the till and gives me my change. Very occasionally she will grab a soggy grey cloth and perfunctorily, but with the look of a surgeon satisfied with her hygiene, wipe her hands and scoop up some soggy, wet, sliced tomatoes for those who wish such garnish, and with forefinger and thumb place it on a roll.
Fingers are in touch with your most intimate parts. The only finger-work I can bear are the immaculate digits of sushi chefs whose hands are constantly under running water.
Our dear working classes often associate hygiene with being “fussy.” And they don’t like to make a fuss, unlike their American counterparts who would have a fit if they saw what their Brit cousins put up with for the sake of a bit of ethnicity.
It is 2pm. Of couse, the train has stopped. It just sits there in the middle of nowhere, for no discernible reason. We now have efficient human communication through trains but no explanation for the stop is offered. the only voice we hear is an impreciation to avail ourselves of sandwiches, teas, and soft and alcoholic drinks from the buffet.
I stare at the train sitting in the sidings that hasn’t been used for years. The windows are thick with dust. On my left are clumps of starved trees growing near what appears to be a site for burning rubbish. The corpses of the trains there just like dead, dust covered insects.
We are moving again. A voice crackles through the speakers sounding very BBC-in-the-Fifties; “We are now approaching Crewe.” A giant hording advertises ” Blackpool’s pleasure beach … Europe’s number one attraction!” Of course! Who needs the rolling hills and warm seas of the Côte d’Azur when you can have Blackpool.
I recall a nightmare week during the war when I was sent to stay with a particularly cold-blooded aunt in Crewe whose idea of looking after us was to send us out to play in the wintry damp streets under dead skies. It was competely horrible and the food, and my mum’s cooking, was an abomination.
I never forgot the word Crewe. It means to threaten with crucifixion. to crewe someone is a form of torture where you screw your enemy to the floor with giant screws. To inflict pain, to crew. I actually recall praying to God for an end to this torture and was granted my prayer since I was sent for the next morning and was taken back to Luton. From then on I believed in God.
We pass endless pylons, more sheds. A family is out taking train numbers and underlining the ones they spot. I did this when I was about eight and it kept me out of the house for hours at a time. I knew the trains and the lines, LMS and LNER. Here the kids are with their grown-up dads. We pass a giant red supermarket for DIY which completely upstages a small grey mouse of a church a few yards away.
Again, the train mysteriously stops. All we hear is the whirring heart inside the train that tells us that it is at least alive. The passengers talk in hushed sepulchral tones when the train stops as the silence tears away the wall of noise. I look at an empty fizz drink can of chemical orange lying between the rails. The sky is laden-hued and heavy. A brace of trees lines the other side of the track against which a plastic bag has impaled itself and looks like a giant nappy flapping in the wind.
I must look at my lines for the extract from Decadence that I’m going to do tonight. I know them fairly well but when you get in front of a couple of thousand people they can go.
Unelievably we have stopped yet again – and now we are actually going backwards! I thought I had seen the last of the DIY supermarket but here it is again, grazing past my eyes. It is as if British Rail plays Monopoly and we have been ordered back to the start position. Now I feel that I do not wish to travel by British Rail again, it is like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.
At Euston Station I asked for a return to Liverpool which is offered at the reasonable sum of £31. What about first-class, I queried.
“That’s £110. ”
“Waaaaaaaaad??????! How can first-class be more than three times as much as second-class.”
“Well we don’t have a special rate for first-class like we do for second.”
“Why on earth not?” I bleep with a traumatic lack of comprehension.
“Don’t know, only work here. But,” she adds, “You can go first-class today and pay a supplement of £3, only you can’t do that tomorrow.”
An announcement, this time in a good north-country publican’s voice, reveals that we are approaching Runcorn. No mention of how late we’re running for Liverpool, where staff will be waiting anxiously for me to make my little speech from Decadence, about gorging oneself and farting all over the place.
I stare out at the terraced houses, little wooden sheds in each garden. Back additions they were called, where you might have extended your scullery or mended your bike.
BOC gases, more sooty grassland, woodyards, rubbish pits, empty oil drums in all colours as if to cheer up the dump. Dead trains looking forlorn, lost and neglected, no heart-beat. Really sad and dirty windows. Factories painted silver like great aircraft hangers.
Ford Works looms up. The sun is grimly, desperately trying to break through but can’t manage to penetrate the thick wall of grey. “Aluminium blasting” announces a sign.
The houses that serve the great factories line up one after another, first Victorian terraced cottages and now pre-war square-looking ones, like Lego sets.
A football field, a smear of green, empty. Past road after road as the lines of houses dive to the tracks and then stop so I can see house, street, house, garden, alleyway, garden, house, street. Where the two gardens about each other is a mysterious path that gives you an entrance from the rear which I used to go up when at school in Luton, it was more personal to call on your chums through the back garden.
We arrive in Liverpool. I get to the hotel named The Trials. I’m greeted at low voltage by a young girl who, after giving me the room key and as I’m on the way to the lift shouts out “Doyawannaalarmcallanapaper?”
She repeats the query but this time putting the requisite pauses. My brain scans the info and I shout back over my shoulders since I have one foot in the life, “WhenIcomedown.” My room is bright and airy and overlooks the main road. In the near distance is a monstrous tower which looks like a machine-gun turrett. It bears faint echoes of the Post Office Tower except that it is in bunker grey and looks military. Evidently it is a restaurant that nobody uses. It is a rude projectile of unbelievably moronic design.
Out of habit I look at the room service menu in case I get back late – “Room service with meals: £12 supplement.” The exorbitant fee for some service is actually higher than the cost of the meals they supply.
I decide to explore my old Liverpool and shoot downstairs. On the way out I gently ask, “Excuse me, but why do you charge such an extraordinary sum for room service.”
“Oh,” the receptionist exclaims, neurons racing across her brain cells, “we don’t charge it really.”
“Then why on earth do you put it on the room service men?”
“I don’t know. But we don’t charge it.”
I walked down the empty, cavernous streets. The whole city looked deserted, as if evacuated by war. Through increasing wealth and Thatcherite philosophy inner cites are now giant shopping centres, unenlivened by any relief from the relentless obsesseion to shop. No cafes filter through the ghastly endless arcades and giant windows, no cinemas break up the gloom. No alternative that might humanise the concrete wilderness. In other words there is nothing that might bespeak a creative act, like a bar or a cafe for conversation and to while away the time. Here in Orwellia you shop, and get back to the TV.
In the station the only cafe open was a Casey Jones burger house made of plastic, with its assembly line of burgers and horrid piped music. In the stations of Dusseldorf you could spend the day in the restaurant; here, if you were a little depressed, you would merely wish to die.
I walked and saw a McDonalds where a few dulled and depressed people sat at the plastic yellow tables and ate from their plastic boxes. They looked like animals in a zoo that would have been condemned by animal rights activists.
I recall large shopping areas in Nice or L.A. where admist endless stores were cafes on every corner selling every kind of food so that on Sunday when the shops are closed there was still still lots of life on the streets. Here though was the spirit of death, the morbid taint of British lifestyle. Non-creative, sterile, lazy, mechanical.
Don’t the planners ever go abroad? Don’t they see anything? Don’t they realise that what an environment needs is something human? I have a particular loathing for people who not only seldom travel but actually crow about how they prefer to stay here and so judge everything from the same limited point of view. A kind of cryptofascism.
I pass a bus stop and some of the waiting passengers are sitting on the pavement. All look brain-dead. At length I turn down a familiar street which leads in the square where sits the beautiful Liverpool Playhouse. It’s a charming mid-Victorian theatre which dominates the square, as if the square was built to frame it. Narrow streets used to link the square to the main roads; these were rivulets of life, full of small shops, charming old pubs, and a remarkable Yates Wine Lodge where we would go after the show. All gone. Ripped out like veins of life to make way for a monstrous slab of grey called Marks & Spencer.
The side of M&S runs nearly the whole length of what was a beautiful mid-Victorian alleway that now looks like what an austere film director would use as a choice location for the Ministry of Truth. Its grey, uniform side contrasts sadly with the moiran human facade of John Lee opposite with its columns and stained glass windows.
It hurts just to look at it and remember what was there before. It is one more death knell into the soul of a city. True, M&S provide decent quality goods for the common man – but at what price? As the stores grow more and more gigantic, all artifacts of life, the bits and bobs of human endeavour, are chucked out. What remains is anonymity and death. No war did so much fearsome damage.
I walk down the ghastly, once-human tributary. A job centre sits in the middle and nothing else. I enter the square. Familiar restaurants are gone and the small Chinese – where we celebrated the first night of Sideman and Son with David Kossoff – is now a boutique. As if there weren’t already a plague of them.
In the square is now a Wimpy bar where a few relics who knew no better sit in forlorn contemplation. It looks like hell. The next alleyway has been remodelled and another monstrosity has torn the guts out of the place. There’s some other vast boutique, another empty concentration camp of slacks and skirts lined up on endless rails.
I get to the theatre, the Empire. It’s a vast 2,500-seater, empty now, like the great yawning mouth of a whale waiting to be filled. Two chaps hang around waiting with autograph books.
I ring the bell at the the stage door and a girl answers and directs me to the stage with not much more than another “I only work here” expression. No welcoming committee, no keen face to welcome, offer a coffee or a drink. Just get on the stage. Some chap mutters about having phoned me once. I expected at least a representative from the Playhouse for which I travelled all this way to help save with my prepared extract from Decadence, in which I will try to enact the dinner scence without Linda Marlowe who reacted with such beautiful disgust to my ecruciating, wind-breaking gormandiser.
Not many actors around, I thought, and then glancing at the show list I see that they have relied heavily on comedians and singers who, traditionally, are the ones to bail out dying causes. Not one actor! Only me with my little piece of text sandwiched between Jimmy Tarbuck and Kenny Lynch. It’s the worst thing in the world to go on with a piece of acting when the audience have had decibel ex-blasting, big-voiced singers and mike-hugging, laugh-a-line comedians. I will disappear and be swallowed up by his vast auditorium which now looks like the Roman Coliseum and I an unarmed Christian about to be devoured.
A silver-hairded chap welcomes me and askes what I need, but we have to shout over a singer who sounds like Mario Lanza. Just two chairs I limply say.
“Any special lighting?”
“No, just a centre spot will do.”
My mind is trying to escape from this ordeal and is already on the train back home. Some limp hands shake mine and I ask who and where is the woman who called me. I’ve shouted so much I have almost lost the powers of communication, and some chap says, “Do you mean Alison?” I didn’t know anymore.
How can I go on without mikes to an audience of 2,500 who are waiting for Jimmy Tarbuck?
I flee from the theatre into a black cab, tearing past the chap who can’t understand why I ignore the simple request for an autograph. He can’t know what the hell I am in. I get to the Trials Hotel, but the front door is locked. I ring the bell frantically. At last a red-faced receptionist comes out with the chap who was there before.
“Sorrree, we’re short-staffed.”
“That’s OK, I’m leaving.” I feel better for having at least some control over my body and my desires. I glady vacate the hotel where they don’t really charge £12 for room service.
By seconds I miss the 4.10pm which perversely seems to have actually left the station at 4.08pm. Next train at 5.10pm.
I scurry around the station like a guilty rat, both satisfied at the anticipated shock they will get at the Empire when they realise I am not there, and yet feeling remorse for not having gone through with it. It’s holistic – you must complete the circles your start. But I couldn’t, not this time. There is no way I could humiliate myself.
I search for a place to sit and think and read the paper but there is only the ghastly Casey Jones which has erupted over all the railway stations of Great Britain with its pretend American charm and fake relaxed atmospheres. It looks like a case of urban herpes.
There was nowhere else to go. I queue for my little packet – a chicken burger and a coffee – and armed with my plastic utensils I sit in a plastic seat and place my goodies on a plastic greasy table which hasn’t been wiped in a while.
There is some awful rap music on as if all customers must be subject not only to the fast food but must perforce endure its musical equivalent. An elderely gentleman queues for his packet looking as if he is being assaulted. This if fun, English style.
Polystyrene cartons litter the station since the waste bins are sealed off. I thought of the journey back when I would be nursing feelings of anger, depression and, worst of all, my famous guilt. I mused and pondered and tried to give my brain instructions. Then I found myself on my feet, traversing the station and making my way back to the Empire Theatre. I could at least rehearse and see how I felt.
The singer was doing just that then when I’d arrived earlier. The silver-haired man had said to him: “When you finish you can go, if you like.” Just like that. No party afterwards, no celebration for our efforts, no drinks, laughs, high times. Just “You can go if you like, Tarbuck’s going after the first act.” I walk up the side street and the two autograph hunters are still there. Even in my foul mood I manage to sign one. I go on stage and ask if could try out the acoustics. “Of course,” I’m told. “Just a few minutes.” They are in the middle of another mike-bending bash.
A woman in black introduces herself to me as the press officer for the Playhouse. At last! I pour out my woes and she is duly and appropriately shocked and makes all the right noises that are geared to appease me. She is smart and sharp. She has cropped hear and wars a black outfit that makes her look like a woman of action.
“I don’t think this is for me, to wedge myself into a bunch of well-nown TV faces and variety acts … It won’t work in a barn like this, since it is a piece of a play.” Plays – exactly what the Playhouse is all about, and partly, of course, why it faces its demise.
We walked upstairs to the giant marble bar and her calm voice soothed me, ointment for my ears. She was smart. She said it would be wonderful if I stayed and how many people would be coming to see me, but understand only too well if I felt I couldn’t. Her voice cajoled.
Coffee was brought and a nice assistant called Rami who was half-Muslim and half-Jew heard my lines a few times and I stepped on to the stage for my warm-up – not throat mikes, just belt into the standing mike from a distance.
A jolly, plump lady from Brookside giggled from the stalls at my rehearsal and a chap from Blood Brothers who was sitting on the side of the stage gave the thumbs up. Lizzy Anne, the press lady, said with full enthusiasm, “You’ve got nothing to worry about.”
I was feeling better having broken a bead of sweat. I felt I could fit in to the variety acts. I would try be a stand-up comic in my little speech from Decadence.
I sat in my dressing room with my case (I now had no hotel) and ran the lines until I felt secure. Three hours sped by and I heard the overture and the beginners. After half an hour my name was called and I went on and did it.
I was introduced and waited at the side of the stage while my eulogies were sounded. I came on and spoke to the mike. There was a great silence out there. “I represent,” I said, “the dramatic element tonight … for those who go to theatres and see plays … all two of you.” Wait for laughter. Silence. Nothing. I started my speech.
“We escape to the restaurant, at last some repose, throw off your coat darling, powder your nose … put on some lip gloss, I’ll spash my toes…” etc.
Suddenly there sounded from out in the desert a little oasis of laughter. The giggles mount and before long it’s over. I recently a kingly hand at the end. I was relieved.
The next morning I returned to the square to visit the Playhouse and see if I could stir up some memories of playing Bamforth on that stage 25 years ago. The square looks even more ghastly than yesterday. A cracked green rubbish bin stands outside the theatre, which looks sad and run down and drab and is advertising all the plays which tour there, highlighting their TV status. Thus it’s not just Kate Fitzgerald any more but “Doreen Corkhill from Brookside.” Patrick Mower is now of “Special Branch.”
I walked down the alleways linking the square to the main thoroughfare which is also a huge shopping zone. I pass a window where the thousands of pants and jackets hang like dead fish and I see a man staring out, but there is nothing to look at since we are in a narrow passageway. He just stares out from his empty shop, since it’s only mid-morning. I stop for a second, and look at him. He is waiting to sell his polyester slacks.
I am reminded of Orwell’s woman who he sees from a train poking a drain with a stick as if forever. The images of a pre-war Britain, low wages and dire conditions. In 1991 there is a man staring into space surrounded by thousands of unsold mass-produced garments, waiting.