David Baddiel explores TV's problem portraying Jewish life on screen
Ahead of his new Channel 4 documentary Jews Don't Count, the comedian writes in Radio Times magazine about the continued lack of representation of ordinary Jewish life.
This feature was originally published in Radio Times magazine.
Oddly, for a race thought by racists to control film and TV, Jews don’t seem to get on our televisions much. Slightly more so in film, but that would mainly be films about the Holocaust, and the reason they get made is less about Jews, and more about winning awards.
This is particularly true on British TV. I remember in 1976, when I was 12, watching the Jack Rosenthal Play for Today, Bar Mitzvah Boy. It was probably the first time I’d ever seen something like my life – that is, the life of an ordinary British Jew – portrayed on a TV screen. Before then, I had seen some versions of my life – untrue ones, that is: Jewish cartoon stereotypes, who would sometimes turn up in sketches on The Two Ronnies, or in-jokes on The Comedians.
There were Jewish actors on TV, but they weren’t playing Jews. Andrew Sachs played a hapless Spaniard in Fawlty Towers. Warren Mitchell played racist Alf Garnett in Til Death Us Do Part. Since then, in sitcoms at least, there has been Simon Amstell’s Grandma’s House and Robert Popper’s Friday Night Dinner, although both of these shows have complex relationships with their Jewishness, and would have been watched by many people who were unaware, I think, of their Jewish settings. Neither was as out-and-out Jewish as the lesser-known 1990s sitcom, So Haunt Me, in which Miriam Karlin played the ghost of a very Jewish mother-in-law.
In the US, there are more Jews and everything is more Jewish – especially comedy. The high point is probably Seinfeld, but it’s hard to say exactly what’s so Jewish about Seinfeld, beyond Jerry himself being Jewish. Arguably, it’s less that and more to do with New York, and with endless discussions about the tiny details of life, described once by producer Larry Charles as “a dark Talmud”.
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Curb Your Enthusiasm, although LA-set, is also very Jewish. There’s an episode where Larry David ends up in a ski chalet owned by an Orthodox Jew. After eating something non-kosher that he smuggled in, he’s told that he must bury the plate for three days to purify it. Even I, who went to an Orthodox Jewish primary school, had never heard of this.
But it’s complex. In Seinfeld, the character based on Larry David, George, is not Jewish: the network felt that one Jew in the main cast was enough. Obviously, David wrote him Jewish anyway, but there was a sense that the audience wouldn’t hack too many Jews – that they had a quota. So they made George Italian.
Some of you may be muttering about The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and indeed, that too is very Jewish. But it moves us on to a different subject, which is that even in this very Jewish show, the main character is played by an actor, Rachel Brosnahan, who is not Jewish. This is also the case with the family in Friday Night Dinner (only Tracy-Ann Oberman, who played Auntie Val, was Jewish), with Tom Hardy’s character in Peaky Blinders, James Norton’s in McMafia, and many more.
In my Channel 4 documentary, Jews Don’t Count, we examine this anomaly in the modern trend towards authenticity casting, among many other examples of how the mantras of identity politics don’t seem to apply to this one minority.
The point that I and the likes of comedian Sarah Silverman make is that, of course, actors should be allowed to act, including parts that are not representative of their own backgrounds. But if authenticity strictures apply in film and TV as regards other minority characters, then why not Jews?
TV is a bit uncertain about Jews. Another person I speak to in the documentary is Jewish actor David Schwimmer, who played a Jewish character, Ross, in Friends. And yet in 10 seasons, this fact about Ross only got one major storyline (in the episode titled The One with the Holiday Armadillo).
Friends, of course, has been attacked – correctly – for a lack of diversity in casting, but it’s instructive that no one is allowed to suggest that there was a minority represented in Friends. As Schwimmer says, that would only be met with a dismissive “not a real minority”.
At one point in Till Death Us Do Part, confronted with the idea that he might be Jewish, Alf Garnett says: “I am not a Y*d! I am not Jewish! It’s all lies!” That the Jewish actor playing Garnett was given lines so defensively denying he is Jewish is interesting, because a lot of Jews are fearful of publicly revealing themselves as Jewish.
There is a dynamic between TV’s uncertainty about how to portray Jews, and Jews uncertainty about portraying themselves. Is Bar Mitzvah Boy, 45 years on, still the best representation of ordinary British Jews I’ve seen on TV? That doesn’t feel right, given the strides made in inclusion and representation elsewhere.
We’re still waiting for a Jewish show along the lines of Goodness Gracious Me or Famalam. Actually, I have appeared on one, called Friday Night Jews. Except it isn’t, it’s called Freitagnacht Jews, and it’s on German TV. I’m not saying any more about that.
David Baddiel: Jews Don’t Count airs Monday 21st November at 9pm on Channel 4, while his bestselling book Jews Don't Count is available to buy now.