A history of entertaining our nation on screen

Alexander Korda, Ali G, Mike Leigh and Peter Sellers   (Wikimedia Commons and Youtube screenshot - via Jewish News)
Alexander Korda, Ali G, Mike Leigh and Peter Sellers (Wikimedia Commons and Youtube screenshot - via Jewish News)

An untold story is the major pioneering role Jews have played in UK film and television. Perhaps because of fear of accusations of antisemitism, or perhaps because of British understatement, we’ve hidden this story in the shadows of our far bigger and richer American cousin. Howard Jacobson described this long habit of reticence and self-consciousness as the “stay sthumm” tradition.

But it’s time that we stepped into the spotlight and shed light on how we’ve been prominent in both industries from their very beginnings and how this participation has continued unabated. If anything, it’s actually increased over the last 20 years, reaching unprecedented levels of visibility, particularly recently.

British Jewry is not simply American’s poorer cousin but has a rich history of involvement both in front of and behind the camera.

Jews got involved in entertainment because they could. The film industry required minimal capital investment. It lacked the entry barriers other professions had erected because it was considered a passing and disrespectable fad. And, alongside the promise of profits, was the lure of glamor and excitement.

Early Jewish pioneers, as distributors, producers, and cinema owners included George Berthold Samuelson whose three sons, Sydney, Peter and Marc, all followed him into the business. Hungarian-Jewish émigré Alexander Korda moved to Britain to set up its only Hollywood-style studio, Denham, which made some of the most notable films between the wars. Michael Balcon transformed the British film industry into a much more modern enterprise, first working with Alfred Hitchcock and then as head of Ealing Studios.

Alexander Korda (Wikimedia/Macfadden Publications, Inc – Jewish News)

Throughout the UK, Jews such as Oscar Deutsch, Victor Saville, Phil and Sid Hyams bought and built palatial cinemas, including the Gaumont State in Kilburn, which was Britain’s largest cinema with 4004 seats. By the end of the twenties, Gaumont-British, run by Isidore Ostrer, had become Britain’s first vertically-integrated film company. These moguls, though, didn’t vaunt their Jewishness. They downplayed, and even concealed it.

They were joined by an influx of German Jews following the introduction of sound in 1929 and more Jewish refugees from Nazism, including producers Hermann Fellner, Josef Somlo, and Emeric Pressburger, actress Lucie Mannheim, actor Peter Lorre, Elizabeth Bergner and Anton Walbrook. This critical mass of Jews helped to transform the image of Jews on film from negative stereotypes to more positive presentations. Their influence was such that novelist Graham Greene complained of the movies’ “tasteless Semitic opulence.”

Jews were involved in the BBC as far back as 1922 when it was still only broadcasting radio. Jewish technician Isaac Schoenberg was in charge the BBC’s first broadcast from Alexandra Palace in November 1936. The first ever BBC music programme featured the BBC Television Orchestra conducted by Hyam Greenbaum. Abram Games designed the BBC’s onscreen logo, first appearing in 1953.

Peter Sellers (Wikimedia/Allan Warren – Jewish News)

From 1946 until 1955, when the BBC still held a monopoly, Jews played a significant, if underappreciated role, in developing what was still a growing medium. They appeared on screen as in a variety of roles: bandleaders Geraldo and Oscar Rabin, artistic performers (Alicia Markova, Gertrude Holtand, Alma Cogan), variety entertainers/comedians (Cilli Wang, Harry Green, Vic Wise); actors (Abraham Sofaer, Miriam Karlin, David Kossoff, Sid James, Yvonne Mitchell, Sydney Tafler). Ronald Waldman and Brian Tesler were the Heads of Light Entertainment. Wolf Mankowitz, Sid Colin, and Dennis Norden were employed as writers. And producer Rudolph Cartier was to television what Korda was to film. Their influence was felt in the range of programmes presenting images of Jews and Judaism, including television’s first engagement with the Holocaust.

The Independent Television Authority in 1954 that broke up the BBC’s monopoly gave Jews the chance to run independent franchises. Sidney Bernstein, Elkan Allan, John Jacobs, Cyril Bennett, Brian Tessler, Lew Grade exploited these opportunities in the profusion of new, independent companies that followed. The 1960s and 1970s were a “golden age” of Jewish television. This was felt at every level from the executives to producers, writers and actors. Such influential figures as Mike Leigh, Jack Rosenthal, Arnold Wesker, and Tom Stoppard all received their start during this period and television featured Jacob Bronowski, David Elstein, Jack Gold, Jonathan Miller, Alan Yentob, Frederic Raphael, and Harold Pinter. Warren Mitchell’s Alf Garnett was a highly visible face.

Jewishness enjoyed a greater visibility in the cinemas, too, with a string of films featuring Jews. Peter Sellers came into his own, moving from radio, to television, to film, particularly in his films for Stanley Kubrick, Lolita (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964). At the end of the decade, Roman Polanski imagined Jewish vampires in The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), and Carol Reed’s Oliver! (1968) transformed Fagin into a sympathetic, even likeable, character. In 1971, John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday explored North London homosexuality and Jewishness, a rare example of a British-Jewish director dealing with personal and autobiographical issues. Jews also played a role in developing Doctor Who, James Bond, and the Carry On series.

Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G

During the 1980s, the major Jewish directors of this period, namely Schlesinger, Mike Leigh, and Michael Winner, didn’t insert any explicit Jewishness into their films. This was left up to either non-British Jewish or gentile directors instead in films like Chariots of Fire (1981). But in the 1990s, a wave of new British Jewish films emerged, mingling with films and television programs about other migrant and diasporic groups. Even Mike Leigh came out, announcing his “Jewish play,” the National Theatre’s production of his Two Thousand Years in the fall of 2005. Peter Sellers’s contemporary incarnation, Sacha Baron Cohen, became highly visible in the new millennium, but typically playing non-Jews, even anti-Semites.

This small but significant presence of Jews in British film and television has provoked the widespread notion of Jewish media domination. While the majority was always gentile, Jews did much to shape these industries. Their energy, ambition, business acumen, vision, and willingness to take risks was essential to their development. But we have been hesitant to shout about it, hiding our achievements in plain sight. This is why the theme of this year’s Jewish History Month, which is happening now, is ‘Big Screen, Little Screen: Jewish in British Cinema and Television’.

About the Author
Nathan Abrams is Professor in Film at Bangor University in Wales.
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