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Jewish Entertainers

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2005-03-14

Suzie Gold

Suzie Gold

We’re used to seeing programmes which focus on the influence of American Jewish comedians and entertainers – but it’s been a while since we saw a show which focused on the British side of things. Until now, that is – for the latest programme in BBC Four’s successful Timeshift series charts the history of Jewish entertainers in this country – from the immigrants who brought Yiddish theatre to the East End in the early 20th Century, to those who entertained the masses during World War II, through to more contemporary entertainers and Jewish comedians.

While American entertainers aren’t ignored totally – there is also another chance to see footage from an interview Alan Yentob did with Mel Brooks for the BBC in the early 80s – much of the focus is on homegrown talent, with the likes of Bud Flanagan (one half of Flanagan and Allen) and Warren Mitchell covered in some detail. The programme also looks at the difference between British Jewish and American Jewish entertainers and their approaches towards Jewish themed material – with a whole bunch of contributors, including film producer Rebecca Green, actress Anna Tzelniker and Something Jewish’s very own Leslie Bunder – popping up to offer their opinion on Jewish entertainers past and present.

The programme takes a fascinating look at UK Jewish entertainers, illustrating its material with a whole bunch of archive footage, including clips from Yiddish theatre performances and a hilarious scene from the 60s sitcom Till Death Do Us Part, in which the bigoted Alf Garnett (played by the very Jewish Warren Mitchell) is accused of having Jewish roots.

Along the way, it attempts to answer the question of just why the UK’s approach to Jewish entertainment is so different to that of the US – here, it concludes, UK entertainers and comedians have always been less upfront, (many Jewish comedians are featured, but very few of them do Jewish material) but with producers like Green making such films as Suzie Gold, that appears to be changing. It also tries to explain why British Jewish talent has never really matured, with writers opting for stereotypical Jewish characters and poor quality scripts in the past.

On the downside, there is possibly a bit too much of the Mel Brooks interview at the beginning as well as the end – but it’s still a pleasure to see a programme that covers British Jewish talent.

Jewish Entertainers is on BBC Four on 15 March at 8.30pm and is repeated at various times during the week. To find out when, and to read more about the programme, visit: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/documentaries/timeshift/jewish-entertainers.shtml