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Stars of David

Peter Watts admires the diversity of Jewish performers in Britain.

What do Ronnie Scott, Sid James, Marc Bolan, Alma Cogan, Elkie Brooks, Anthony Newley, Mick Jones, Manfred Mann and Leslie Howard have in common? All are entertainers - actors, musicians and comedians - and all are Jewish. They take their place alongside others such
as Maureen Lipman, Sacha Baron Cohen and Harold Pinter in "Entertaining the Nation", the Jewish Museum's celebratory exhibition about Jewish entertainers in Britain.

It's a colourful exhibition but also a thoughtful one. Wisely, it has little time for tortured attempts to define a universal "Jewish experience". How could you possibly draw a straight line from Sid James to Rachel Stevens? It does, however, look at aspects of British history that may have helped Jewish entertainers and subtly trashes stereotypical notions about the kinds of roles entertainers might have been forced to play because of their Jewishness.

The section on music, which features an eye-catching, gold-lamé suit worn by Marc Bolan, includes a roll call of impresarios (Larry Parnes, Don Arden, Andrew Loog Oldham, Brian Epstein, Malcolm McLaren, Bernie Rhodes) and looks at Jewish musicians, from the wartime band leader Joe Loss to Amy Winehouse. The Jewish manager is a trope we are familiar with; the Jewish singer less so.

The exhibition also explains why so many men and women of Jewish origin worked in the entertainment industry: opportunity. Entertainment on this scale was a relatively new and porous field, making it accessible for outsiders from humble backgrounds. There was prejudice - many felt that they had to change their names - but less than what might have been encountered in more "respectable" trades.

By the 1910s, the Jewish diaspora was so well established that the phenomenon of "Hebrew comedians" could develop. These were Jewish vaudeville artists who poked fun at their accents and cultural peculiarities. Such acts were not always affectionate. The British version of one popular routine, "Cohen on the Telephone", first recorded in 1913, is illustrated with the sort of images that have been used in anti-Semitic propaganda for centuries.

Attempts to counter this prejudice gathered pace after the Second World War, as a second wave of Jewish entertainers, often schooled in variety-show routines at summer camps held by the socialist, Zionist youth movement Habonim, became more comfortable celebrating their cultural identity. One of Habonim's alumni was Mike Leigh. The exhibition features clips of Leigh, Pinter, Steven Berkoff and Jack Rosenthal discussing how their upbringing has - directly or obliquely - influenced their work. This is offered in contrast to a cabinet that highlights the contribution of Jewish producers, directors and writers to such quintessentially English film franchises such as Carry On, James Bond and the comedies produced by Ealing Studios. As Emeric Pressburger once said: "I'm more English than the English. While you were born British, I chose to be British."

“Entertaining the Nation" runs until 8 January 2012. More details at:

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister