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Britain’s Small Screen Jewish Gangsters

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Contining with our series on Jews and Crime, Nathan Abrams explores British Jewish gangsters and criminals on the small screen.

The image of the British Jewish gangster isn’t an obvious one but we’ve had two significant crime families on British television in recent years.

McMafia (BBC, 2018) was an eight-part British crime drama television series created by Hossein Amini and James Watkins and directed by Watkins. It was co-produced by the BBC, AMC, and Cuba Pictures. It was first broadcast on BBC One on 1 January 2018 and then premiered on AMC on 26 February 2018.

McMafia focussed on the exploits of one ex-pat Russian-Jewish crime family — the Godmans — living in London. Its casting largely excluded Jews. Only one member of the Godman tribe, Uncle Boris, is played by a Jewish actor, David Dencik. The lead role is played by an actor who went to a Catholic school, James Norton. Writing in the Jewish Chronicle, David Aaronovitch opined, ‘The Godman family, transitioning from Russian mobsters to London financiers are supposedly Jewish, though heaven knows how you would tell. The paterfamilias seems more Glaswegian than Odessian, the kids are pure Bedales and they wish each other a long life when making toasts. Next, they’ll be lighting their Passover dreidels’ (2018). British-Jewish Comedian David Baddiel added to the chorus, tweeting on 5th January 2018, ‘No sign so far of the enormous woke outcry over James Norton playing a Jew in McMafia and then ‘So you’d be OK with a white man playing Othello?’

The cast of McMafia. Photo: BBC Worldwide

The second complaint about McMafia was its portrayal of Jews on television as gangsters. The non-fiction book by Misha Glenny entitled McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime (2008) inspired the series. The cover blurb describes itself as ‘a journey through the new world of international organised crime, from gunrunners in Ukraine to money launderers in Dubai, by way of drug syndicates in Canada and cyber criminals in Brazil.’ Significantly, nowhere does this mention either Israel or Jews, although at least one chapter, telling entitled ‘Aliyah’, does focus on Jewish gangsters in Israel. Glenny recounts how, following the murder of a Russian pimp, Oleg ‘Karpits’ Karpachov in September 1996, Israeli police unravelled an invisible Russian-speaking network of pimps, brothels, protection rackets, counterfeit documents and kidnapping that kept itself strictly divorced from the rest of Israel society as if in a parallel world. The single largest business was prostitution.

Photo: BBC Worldwide

It is from this milieu, as well as the one million Jews who fled to Israel from the former Soviet Union from 1989 onwards, that the creative team behind McMafia drew inspiration. In so doing, by contrast to the book, the television the series vastly reduces its scope to focus on the Godman family as well as an Israeli businessman and Knesset member called Semiyon Kleiman (significantly played by the non-Jewish American actor, David Straithairn). Kleiman also leads a shadowy existence as an international sex trafficker, drug runner and money launderer in the show.

This leads to the obvious question: why produce a drama about global organised crime only to reduce it to the story of one Jewish family? Furthermore, especially when in reducing it to several key Jewish characters, the series taps into and hence propagates stereotypes of Jews, money, and international conspiracies that lie at the heart of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion? The group known as the UK Lawyers for Israel, for example, accused the show of gratuitous slurs against Israeli businessmen and making references to Israel which are not mentioned in the original book.

Yuval Scharf and Sofya Lebedeva in McMafia. Photo: BBC Worldwide

On this note, the BBC’s interviews with the writer, director, and caste are curiously silent, mentioning Jews only once, not explaining the focus on them. However, when confronted with the criticism, Hossein Amini is reported as claiming that the depiction was not intended to be offensive (Kraft 2018). One of the few Jewish actors in the show, Yuval Scharf, who plays Kleiman’s assistant, Tanya, stated, ‘I don’t feel that Israel is presented in a more negative way than Russia or England or any other country condemned for corruption. The show is not about Israel, it’s about the way crime touches the core of everything. It’s not about Israel, it’s not about London, it’s about the bad people there. It’s talking about the globalized world of organized crime and all the globalization of the mafia, and we live in a global world now. And all the accents and all the different people from all over the world – a lot of extras from Russia, India, a lot of accents come together on set’ (Spiro 2018). Ultimately, David Aaronovitch concludes, ‘In some ways having unstereotypical Jewish villains is a sign of progress. We should be pleased. Maybe’.

BBC’s Peaky Blinders (2013-), the fifth season of which aired in 2019, 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 manoeuvre, 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, memorably played by Tom Hardy (previously Bane in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’), the leader of a gang of Jewish ‘bakers,’ who smuggle rum.

Tom Hardy as Alfie Solomons. Photo: BBC Worldwide

Alfie is based on a real-life individual. Solomon along with his brother Harry protected Jewish bookmakers at the track where they became both ‘famed and feared’. ‘Holding hands with history’, as Peaky Blinders writer, Steven Knight put it, he transformed Solomon into Solomons with the help of non-Jewish actor Tom Hardy. While instantly recognisable as Jewish by the garb he wears in the series, Solomons again has an accent more befitting on Camden Town than Hamburg. Rather than sticking to stereotype or slavishly following history, Knight explains, ‘when you have an actor of the standard of Tom Hardy you want to make the most of him so we have portrayed him as funny but with an edgy character’. The result is a character that is as tough-as-nails, violent and full of expletives. Indeed, it is from this character that the title of this chapter is drawn: describing some violence he has committed, Solomons explains how ‘I shoved a 6-inch nail up his fucking nose and hammered it home with a duckboard. It was fucking biblical, mate.’

Previously, if one thought of gangsters, one might have considered New York or Odessa but now with Tom Hardy as Alfie Solomons and James Norton as Alex Godman, British television is now beginning to represent the British Jewish past and present in a more realistic light.

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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