Bernard Kops obituary

<span>Bernard Kops in 1963. He was a man of large heart, usually worn on his sleeve.</span><span>Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images</span>
Bernard Kops in 1963. He was a man of large heart, usually worn on his sleeve.Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images

Although once bracketed with Harold Pinter and Arnold Wesker, his fellow East End of London Jewish playwrights of the late 1950s, Bernard Kops, who has died aged 97, was a more fantastical, surreal writer than either. And while Pinter was always a political writer, Kops and Wesker, though committed socialists (and Kops a communist who sold copies of the Morning Star outside Whitechapel station), offered more sentimental portraits of Jewish family life in the context of local and European history.

Kops’s two early signature plays, which remain his best known – The Hamlet of Stepney Green (1957) and Enter Solly Gold (1961) – established his main themes of emotional and material escape from the humdrum life. This “improvement” is invariably an illusion as Kops celebrates the durability of love, virtue and belonging.

His Stepney Hamlet, David Levy, is keener to be a crooner than to run the family’s pickled herring stall, while his ghostly father, Sam – poisoned by family life, not a brother – revisits that life, finds it all right, and encourages his widow to marry his best friend, Mr Segal. David finds happiness with Mr Segal’s daughter, Hava.

In scenes of rejoicing brought on by a love potion, Hamlet has a happy ending. Thus, we can finally answer the vexed academic question: does Hamlet sleep with Ophelia? Only on tour, laddie – and in the Kops play. When it was revived for the first time in London in 1987, critics found it funny, absurdist and unjustly neglected.

Solly Gold is a Tartuffe-like religious conman who convinces a Jewish mogul that he is the new Messiah in order to fleece him. This time, a shoe business might be up for grabs, and there is some mordantly funny satire of Jewish observances and domesticity. And another happy ending.

The play was chosen to launch Wesker’s TUC-backed Centre 42 project in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, as part of a drive to present new plays in regional festivals. The attempt failed and the project was recycled at the Roundhouse, north London, in 1966, but without Kops’s play.

Kops remained marginal to the repertoire of the National, the West End, even the Royal Court. But his output was still prolific, with a final count of four dozen plays on radio, television and in small theatres.

He made something of a comeback, certainly with the critics, in the 90s, with another variation of disrupted family life and ritual, Playing Sinatra (1991, middle-aged Sinatra-loving siblings undone by a malevolent guest) – “beautifully written” said Irving Wardle; and The Dreams of Anne Frank (1992), which eclipsed the famous play and film of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett in placing Anne as an optimistic dreamer at the centre of her own tragic story – “marvellous”, said Michael Billington. The play remains often performed all over the world.

Kops was born in Stepney, east London, one of eight siblings – all of whom survived into their 90s. Both his father, Joel Kops, a tailor, and his mother, Jenny (nee Zetter), were Dutch-Jewish immigrants. He was educated at Stepney Jewish primary school and, he said, “the university of the poor”, Whitechapel library, where he read voraciously and decided to become a writer, sustaining himself as a docker, chef and barrow boy.

His breakthrough play – The Hamlet of Stepney Green – was a passport to the bohemian coterie of artists, writers and flaneurs in Soho, where he ran a secondhand bookstall just off Cambridge Circus with Erica Gordon, whom he had married in 1956. The novelist Colin MacInnes used Bernard and Erica as models for Mannie and Miriam Katz in Absolute Beginners (1959). But after his second play, Goodbye World (1959), flopped at the Guildford Playhouse, Kops became addicted to amphetamine, as he recounted in his autobiography, though his productivity was unaffected, perhaps even enhanced.

The Dream of Peter Mann (1960) was an expressionist update of Peer Gynt, the hero’s search for uranium defied by his mother, in the shape of an Angel of Death, who shakes him back to life; this dramatic knife-edge in his work between living and dying came to a head in his own manic behaviour and a botched attempt at taking hi own life in 1975.

In the same year, his powerful television film It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow alerted a new generation to the 1943 Bethnal Green tube stairway disaster, when 173 people, including many women and children, were asphyxiated in a catastrophic crush below street level during an air-raid warning, the worst civilian war disaster in Britain.

Kops kicked his drug habit – he always gave Erica the credit – and managed to find a way of living with mood swings and depressions. He poured out novels and poems indefatigably while remaining jovial company among friends and neighbours along the Finchley Road, West Hampstead. His other television plays included The Boy Philosopher (1974), based on stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and a boxing memorial, Ricky Marciano Is Dead (1976).

Ezra (1981) charted the incarceration by the US army of Ezra Pound in a cage in wartime Italy and drew a virtuoso performance of majestic insanity from Ian McDiarmid at the New Half Moon along the Mile End Road. I was riveted, too, by another wartime-related piece, Call on the Night (1995), at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, in which a world famous violinist, played by Gary Waldhorn, returned to Leeds for a VE day celebration 50 years after he had first come to the city as a refugee. Again, this was a play of reverie and replays, layered with old memories and lost opportunity.

Kops’s eighth volume of poetry, The Room in the Sunlight (2009), often self-mocking, collected many of his earlier poems, which are heartfelt and vivid rather than metrically ingenious or opaque. He was a man of large heart, usually worn on his sleeve.

His 10th novel, The Odyssey of Samuel Glass (2012), reiterated that desire to leave home as the eponymous hero travels through time and space with a rabbi to Vitebsk (now in Belarus) where he falls in with his great-great-great-grandmother and a gang of pre-revolutionary anarchists. The escape, as usual, was in fact a return.

He published two volumes of autobiography, The World is a Wedding (1964) and Shalom Bomb: Scenes from My Life (2000), in which most things are explained, nothing hidden.

He is survived by Erica, and by four children, Adam, Hannah, Rebekah and Abigail.

• Bernard Kops, playwright, novelist and poet, born 28 November 1926; died 25 February 2024