Hidden in Plain Sight
Jews and Jewishness in British Film, Television and Popular Culture
Edited by Nathan Abrams
Cultural Expressions of World War II Series
Evanston (Illinois): Northwestern University Press, 2016
Paperback. 284 p. ISBN 978-0810132825. $34.95
Reviewed by David Dee
De Montfort University (Leicester)
Hidden in Plain Sight is a wide-ranging demonstration of both the significant impact of Jews and Jewishness on the history of British film and TV and the importance of popular culture more generally as a medium through which Jewish identities, values and concerns can be articulated. Bringing together twelve essays from a truly interdisciplinary cast, Hidden in Plain Sight is, according its editor, Nathan Abrams (Professor of Film Studies, Bangor), a long-awaited and much-needed corrective. In contrast to the United States, where the significant contribution of Jews behind and in front of the camera is well understood, Abrams claims that the ‘important historic role’  of Jews in the development of the industries in Britain, and the ‘visibility’  of Jews and Jewishness in these media, has not received the attention that it warrants. The volume, then, aims to ‘rectify this neglect’  and show that Jews and Jewishness have been ‘hidden in plain sight’ in the worlds of British film and TV. It sets out to argue that Jews played an important role in both the nascent film and television industries in Britain, that Jewish creative talent had an important impact on output in these areas throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first century and that movies and TV programmes became an important mirror of the changing attitudes and cultures of modern British Jewry.
In all of these areas, Hidden in Plain Sight achieves its objectives. On the one hand, the volume exposes the critical role of Jews in the early years of film, and later, television, in Britain. As Abrams himself documents in his excellent introductory essay, Jewish entrepreneurialism – emerging from both British-born and refugee Jewish communities – played a key role in film production, distribution and the development of the wider film and cinema infrastructure in the early twentieth century. Jewish creative talent, as actors, writers, directors and comedians, later came to the fore at the time of the advent of British television. Working in an era when antisemitic notions of Jewish ‘influence’ and ‘control’ in British politics and business (including the emerging film industry) were widespread, it was perhaps no surprise that most Jews involved in British film in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s downplayed their Jewishness (the Hungarian-born Jewish émigré Alex[ander] Korda ‘systematically wrote Jewish characters out of his screenplays and promoted so-called English identity and values’  according to Abrams) and avoided exploring Jewish society and culture, or making political statements related to the position of Jews, whether in Britain or internationally, in their work. Some non-Jews, however, were willing to use this new media in a more assertive fashion. Phyllis Lassner and Alex Pogerelskin’s interesting essay (‘An Anti-Nazi Special Relationship : British Writing, Hollywood Filmmaking and The Mortal Storm (1940)’) on the British writer Phyllis Bottome’s efforts to develop a cinematic version of her staunchly anti-Fascist novel The Mortal Storm (1937) is a case in point. Whilst Bottome understood that the clear anti-Nazi message of her story would not find favour amongst British film directors, producers, financiers, censors and, indeed, amongst many sections of British Jewry, she used contacts in the American Jewish community to bring the tale – a rare, open attack on German ethnic policy – to the big screen.
Over time, however, Jews and Jewishness gradually assumed a more prominent position in Britain’s film and televisual output. These forms of popular culture became, and were often consciously used as, a means of offering a window onto what being Jewish meant and how Jewishness was seen and perceived in modern British society. In one sense, as Schaffer’s essay (‘ “You Don’t Cure a Problem by Sweeping It under the Carpet” : Jews, Sitcoms and Race Relations in 1960s Britain’) shows, these media allowed non-Jewish society to express its belief that, while Jews had done much to assimilate British mores and customs (and were thus less ‘alien’ to the mainstream than newer, non-white arrivals from the Commonwealth), they remained far from accepted. Indicating a growing willingness to portray Britain’s multicultural make-up, Jewish and other minority characters were increasingly visible on the small screen in this period, but the continued reliance on stereotypes and lazy racist accusations when dealing with Jewish characters and Jewish themes showed a continuing belief in Jews as ‘outsiders’ held by many in British society.
Since the 1970s, however, Jewish writers, directors and actors themselves have more openly utilised film and television as ways of revealing and presenting Jewish life in modern Britain to the outside world. Over recent years, film and TV has continued to ‘embrace the normalisation of Jewish visibility’  and this explains why Jewish characters, plotlines and productions have become increasingly commonplace (as shown by the six essays that effectively make up the second half of the volume). It also goes a long way to explaining why a previously ‘hidden’ Jew like Mike Leigh (born in Manchester to a Jewish family and the subject of Donald Weber’s essay ‘Peckhlach : Mike Leigh’s British Jewish Soul’) decided to ‘come out of the closet’  with his Two Thousand Years (2005), which openly dealt with the complexities of Jewish family and community life and Jewish identity.
Yet, as Weber also shows in his essay on Leigh, a continued ‘ingrained wariness’  prevalent within the British Jewish minority has also been closely reflected in terms of filmic and televisual representations. Indeed, several of the essays dealing with the period from the 1990s to the modern day make mention of how big and small screen stories set within the Jewish community or featuring Jewish characters continue to reflect anxieties evident within the population, be this the impact of disaffiliation and intermarriage (a key theme of 2004 film Suzie Gold, covered in Michele Byer’s essay ‘On the Threshold : British Jewish Femininity in Suzie Gold’), feelings of continued ‘Jewish particularity in the face of a homogenising Britishness’  (see Vice on ‘Christmas Trees and Hanukkah Bushes : The “Emancipation Contract” in the Contemporary British Television Dramas Hebburn and Friday Night Dinner) or concerns over the growing convergence between anti-Zionism and antisemitism (Cohen on ‘Love and Betrayal : Politicised Romance in Peter Kosminsky’s The Promise (2011)’). Film and TV has increasingly been used by British Jews to expose British and wider society to Jews and Jewishness in recent years, but ‘Jewish’ output in these areas has also reflected and presented the cultural, social and political concerns of the population.
The volume is not without its faults (too much basic plot description and analysis undermine some of the essays), but as a whole it succeeds in its bid to show the ‘hidden’ British history of Jews and Jewishness on screen and behind the camera. Overall, Hidden in Plain Sight is a timely evaluation of the importance of these industries to Jews and Jewish life in modern Britain and comes at a time when British Jewish culture and creativity are both ‘flourishing’  – as evidenced by the successes of Jewish writers like Naomi Alderman and Howard Jacobsen, festivals such as Jewish Book Week, UK Jewish Film Festival and Limmud and the opening and/or growth of cultural centres and hubs such as Jewish Museum, London and JW3, an arts, culture and entertainment centre launched in Camden in 2013. The book should be of great interest to scholars, students and the general reader interested in the history and study of popular culture or of the Jewish population of Britain: it is highly readable and extremely wide-ranging.
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