East End Jews and Left Wing Theatre

For British Jews of a certain age, Alfie Bass, David Kossoff, Warren Mitchell and Lionel Bart were household names in the world of popular music and theater. They were also children of London’s Jewish East End who aspired to make it in the wider world, felt very Jewish, but at the same time were perplexed by it. Isabelle Seddon’s well-researched and revelatory book, East End Jews and Left-Wing Theatre: Alfie Bass, David Kossoff, Warren Mitchell and Lionel Bart, reclaims them from recent history and describes their often arduous journey through life.All married non-Jews except for Lionel Bart – the writer of great songs in the British musicals of the 1960s such as Oliver and Fings Aint Wot They Used T’Be – who was gay. Kossoff, who started off playing a rabbi in The Yellow Star in 1945, ended up by relating his humorous paraphrasing of biblical stories to enthusiastic audiences in churches, took on “the aura of a Jewish saint,” and eventually converted to Christianity.All were products of the inter-war politics and culture of the East End – socialists, witnesses to poverty and injustice – “Jewish cockneys” who came of age during the Spanish Civil War, the Holocaust and the rise of Israel. They were all graduates of London’s left-wing Unity Theatre.There is a long tradition of East End Jews enjoying the world of the theater. In March 1839, a reviewer wrote, “It was literally a house of Israel… there were Moseses and Jacobses and Solomons and Isaacs, enough to have stormed and retaken old Jerusalem.” However it was the influx of Yiddish-speaking Jews, escaping tsarism after 1882 who created a parallel world to that of traditional English theater. Alfie Bass was best known for his role in the popular, late-1950s television sit-com The Army Game, and who later succeeded Chaim Topol in playing Tevye in the London production of Fiddler on the Roof. In 1936, however, as Abraham Basalinsky, he fought local fascists in the Battle of Cable Street. A Yiddish speaker, he was highly influenced by the Communist Party, but moved to the Labour Party when the evils of Stalinism became all too obvious.Warren Mitchell (Misell) was best known for his comical, yet obnoxious character Alf Garnett, in the popular Till Death Do Us Part, which ran on British TV from 1966-1975. Portraying the absurdity of a racist, sexist, foul-mouthed monarchist, he directed a verbal blunderbuss at the political ignorance of some in the white working class by imitating their daftness with humor and irony.

HIS MISPRONUNCIATIONS were a highlight of the show. Golda Meir became Goldwyn Meyer. Yet as Isabelle Seddon astutely points out, this Oxford graduate drew upon some of the Jewish mannerisms that had been on display in the Unity Theatre.Mitchell, who was an understudy for Alfie Bass and the Yiddish actor Meir Tselniker, acted in the plays of Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter, and was to be found in popular films from Carry on Cleo to The Beatles’ Help. He too was sensitized to politics when he became aware of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, and when his family took in a kindertransport girl in the late 1930s. He considered living in Israel because “it was a socialist country and England lacked idealism,” and spent much time learning Hebrew. In the end, he decided against making aliyah because of the paucity of acting jobs in Israel. Lionel Bart (Begleiter), like Bass and Kossoff, was the son of an impoverished East End Jewish tailor. In attending Saint Martin’s College in London’s Soho, he experienced a cosmopolitan way of life and started to move from sketching life drawings to writing songs for early British rockers, Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard.He was unable to read or write music and simply dictated his tunes into a tape recorder. The blue-eyed boy of British musicals in the 1960s, he signed away all his rights to his music for Oliver, invested the funds in his new venture, Twang, which was a disastrous failure, and declared bankruptcy in 1972. He then sadly sank into the oblivion of drink and poverty.Yet as Isabelle Seddon indicates, he radically reinterpreted the caricature of the hook-nosed Jew, Fagin, as a lovable rascal in Oliver. Ron Moody, who played Fagin in the 1968 film version of Oliver, noted that Bart ‘filleted Fagin of all the characteristics that made Jews shudder and antisemites applaud, turning him into a public benefactor who gave orphans a better-fed life.”This is a wonderful book that places these Jewish artists in a historical-cultural context. This is not only a British story, but a much wider Jewish one for which Isabelle Seddon provides many interesting insights.

Jerusalem Post 6 August 2020

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