A Revolution on British TV: Jewish Characters Who Look Just Like You and Me

The long-held tradition of using visual and linguistic stereotypes and clichés to identify Jewish characters seems to have faded away. U.K. TV programming is increasingly resembling its edgier American counterpart.

Nick Briggs

A revolution is happening on British television right before our eyes. But it is so quiet that I’m pretty sure it has been missed by many viewers. The revolution is not simply that there is an increasing number of Jewish characters on mainstream British television: Indeed, recent years have witnessed a veritable explosion of Jews on the telly. Nor is it that a wider range of characters – well-rounded, subtle or even shocking – are now appearing on screen. Rather, surprisingly, these Jews seem virtually indistinguishable from everyday Brits.

In the past, because Jewish characters were relatively rare on TV in the U.K., and because Jews are a tiny percentage of its overall population, there was a time when non-Jews were very unlikely to meet or have any connection with a Jewish person. Consequently, British Jewish characters were overly coded on screen, conforming to a limited set of visual clichés and stereotypes such as the overbearing Jewish mother or the Hasid, or literary figures like Shylock and Fagin. These included Dorian in the sitcom “Birds of a Feather” (1989-98), Dr. Legg in the long-running soap “Eastenders” (1985 -), and even, in the series of adverts for British Telecom, Maureen Lipman who portrayed, albeit gently and humorously, an anxious balabusta.

To make sure the British audience knew the characters were Jewish, they often had a marked tendency to sound like they just got off the boat from Eastern Europe. It did not matter whether the program was set in 1914 or 2014, or if the characters in question were 15 or 50: They would have a clear Eastern European accent that distinguished them from the gentiles around them. They looked stereotypically Jewish (sporting ear-locks, ultra-Orthodox-style shtreimels, or other easily identified symbols), and were usually played by Jewish actors such as Lipman, Henry Goodman and Miriam Margolyes.

Today, in contrast, because Jews have become a relatively frequent presence on our screens, things have changed. They appear in a variety of shows, including "Grandma's House," in which Simon Amstell plays himself; "Friday Night Dinner," in which the Goodman family is portrayed by Simon Bird, Tamsin Greig, Paul Ritter and Tom Rosenthal; and in "Hebburn," with Kimberley Nixon as Sarah. These are joined by such documentary shows such as "The Jews," "Two Jews on a Cruise," "Strictly Kosher," "Jews at Ten," "Jewish Mum of the Year," and the long-running series, "The Apprentice," helmed by the no-nonsense businessman, Lord Alan Sugar, now airing in its 10th season.

Friday Night Dinner.

The result is that these new Jewish TV characters are depicted not only as being born and bred in Britain, but also sound just like they are. They are now, at least in terms of their accents, harder to distinguish from their gentile co-characters. Indeed, they have become visually indistinctive – not bearing the physical markers of Jewishness, whether clothing or physiognomy. Indeed, as viewers, we sometimes have to be explicitly told that they are Jewish. One reason for this: These "televisual" Jews are typically not being played by Jewish actors.

Gangsters and psychopaths

This phenomenon encompasses a range of shows set in various historical eras. Two of these programs, “Peaky Blinders” and “Downton Abbey,” occur in the era immediately after World War I. The third, “The Fall,” is set in contemporary Belfast, Northern Ireland.

BBC's “Peaky Blinders” is a period gangster drama, based on fact, about the (non-Jewish) eponymous gang (so-called because they hide razor blades in their caps) in Small Heath, Birmingham in the 1920s, trying to become legitimate bookmakers. In a strategic maneuver, the Peaky Blinders clan decided to team up with “the Jews” of Camden Town, North London (which is incidentally, where this writer went to school). Thus, they meet with Alfie Solomons, played brilliantly by Tom Hardy (previously Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises”), the leader of a gang of Jewish “bakers,” who smuggle rum. Alfie, who was a real-life person, is tough as nails. In a Passover seder scene, for example, he slaughters a goat as a warning to the Peaky Blinders who have become too violent to control.

Meanwhile, much further up the social scale is Atticus Aldridge, in ITV’s “Downton Abbey.” Atticus’ ancestors emigrated from Russia to England. Having made their fortune, they acquired the honorific title of Sinderby, which they later changed to Aldridge. He is played by the non-Jewish actor Matt Barber. Like Alfie Solomons, he sounds authentically British.

Finally, in the BBC police procedural “The Fall,” another non-Jewish actor/model, Jamie Dornan, plays Paul Spector, a Jew. He is a family man and bereavement counselor during the day but a serial-killer psychopath at night (this is not a spoiler; we know this from the very first episode). When confronted by a disgruntled client who questions him about his surname, Spector replies, without shame, “Russian Jewish.” This character is highly unusual: good looking, a loving parent, a counselor – but also a violent misogynist.

All three of these characters, simultaneously appearing in shows on two of Britain’s major channels, arguably represent a landmark change in the representation of Jews in British television. Finally, the long-held British-Jewish tradition of resorting to simplified visual and linguistic stereotypes and clichés to depict such characters seems to have been broken. U.K. TV programming is increasingly resembling its edgier American counterpart.

For the purpose of comparison, the American show "Sons of Anarchy" – about a Californian motorcycle club that is trying to get out of running drugs and guns, and into more “legitimate” businesses such as high-class escort services and adult films – contains many Jewish characters. A key member of the gang is the explicitly Jewish Bobby Munson (Mark Boone, Jr.), who wears a “Chai” symbol on a chain around his neck along with his biker gear.

In one episode, the Sons encounter a nasty Jewish pimp called Greensleeves aka Adam Greenblatt (Christopher Backus); he wears a Star of David around his neck, and is apparently tattooed with Hebrew letters (prompting a query from the show’s main protagonist about whether that is “kosher”). One of the prostitutes is played by Israeli actress Inbar Lavi. British TV may not be as daring or edgy as this, but it is becoming more so.

Ironically, these new depictions are probably not so much a function of the greater confidence among Jews in the U.K. in terms of asserting and showing their identity. Rather, because it is for the most part non-Jews who are creating and playing these characters, it is they together with the directors/producers/screenwriters of these shows, who are less afraid to push boundaries. Where British Jews are showing less timidity is their lack of complaints over these depictions.