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‘The hidden presence of Jews in television and film’
Nathan Abrams is Professor of Film Studies in the School of Creative Studies and Media at Bangor University.
Did you know that Doctor Who was Jewish? No? Well this is where my research comes in handy. I am engaged in exploring the hidden presence of Jews in British film and television both in front of behind the camera and how they helped to shape some of the most iconic British images of the twentieth century. These also include James Bond, the Carry On films and Coronation Street.
Jews in Britain have been present in the film and television industries almost since their very inception. This is because, unlike other professions, they were not restricted to Jews. They were only considered a passing fad so they were not strictly policed by those who would seek to ban Jews from employment. Also, they did not require a huge amount of start-up capital or skill to get involved.
As a result, many Jews, either immigrants or the children of immigrants, took advantage of new opportunities to build up significant careers. These included Alexander Korda who directed The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933); Sir Michael Balcon, who was initially in charge of Alfred Hitchcock’s British films and later created the series of comedies known as the “Ealing Comedies”; Harry Saltzman, a partner in the James Bond franchise; Jack Rosenthal who became a regular writer for Coronation Street; and Sid James and Bernard Bresslaw in the Carry On films.
The list could be extended even further to encompass Peter Sellers, John Scheslinger, Mike Leigh, Michael Winner and Stanley Kubrick. There are even more than can be named here for reasons of length.
Between them, these individuals shaped some of the key figures, series and films of the last century, some of which we consider quintessentially British. Take James Bond, for example. The 007 of Ian Fleming’s novels was a much more prosaic figure until Saltzman, writer Wolf Mankowitz and set designer Ken Adam got hold of him. Thereafter, he was transformed into the jet-setting, international, super stud playboy of the sixties and seventies so beloved today. Even the most recent instalment, Skyfall, was directed by British Jew, Sam Mendes.
Doctor Who was the brainchild of Sydney Newman, who was born in Toronto to Russian Jewish immigrants. (Incidentally, he also created The Avengers.) The series’ first producer, Verity Lambert, was also Jewish. Carol Ann Ford, the companion of the first doctor (William Hartnell) was a Jewish actress.
Their roots surely influenced the conception of The Doctor. As an anonymous time-travelling planet hopper he fits the stereotype of the eternal wandering Jew, doomed never to return to his homeland. Every time he comes back to Earth, he engages in the traditional Jewish concept of “tikkun olam” — fixing or healing the world. He’s also a doctor no less. And his sworn enemies are a race of genetically engineered ur-Nazi super-beings in metallic shells whose goal is to “exterminate” humanity.
Unfortunately, though, not much academic research has been done on all this. It is my hope, that through my work (and that of others), this will change and the hidden presence of Jews in British film and television will finally be acknowledged.
Nathan may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared in the Western Mail on 2nd December 2013, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.