What the Dickens were they thinking?
Giles Coren

London Times ONline.

OFCOM HAS RULED that a sketch in which Rory Bremner dressed up as Fagin, wore a huge prosthetic nose and sang “you’ve got to pick a pocket or twoâ€? in order to lampoon Lord Levy was not an example of anti-Semitic stereotyping.

Hmmm. I wouldn’t suggest for a minute that Rory Bremner is a racist, or anything other than a decent, gentle man of great humanity and wit. But I am afraid Ofcom is wrong.

Ofcom would have been right if the fellow depicted as Fagin had been Gordon Brown, because Gordon Brown is not a Jew. But then, of course, because Gordon Brown is not a Jew, he would never be depicted as Fagin. An English comedian looking to paint Gordon Brown as a money-crazed crook would be more likely to focus on his Scottishness, because that would be more relevant. It would be seen to carry greater human — and comic — truth. Largely because it would be an example of racist stereotyping.

Oliver Letwin has been described as “a Faginâ€? too, a couple of years ago, by Ian McCartney, then the Labour Party chairman. And that, too, was only not racist in the sense that calling Letwin a “moon-faced pork-dodgerâ€? would not have been racist. Nor is “truthâ€? or “aptnessâ€? any defence for the application of offensive metaphor. The fact that Mr Letwin is a moon-faced pork-dodger has nothing to do with it.

A brief database trawl shows that Nigel Lawson and Keith Joseph have also been Faginned. But I can’t find a single gentile who has.

Lord Levy is a loud, unelected, millionaire smart-arse with a big nose and a widow’s peak and expensive suits and the most Jewish surname imaginable, whose power in the land derives entirely from wealth made in commerce. The kind of Jew, in short, about which a certain kind of Briton just cannot hide his feelings: for example, the old Etonian former MP Tam Dalyell, whose shuddering revulsion at Lord Levy’s influence (and, no doubt, nose) led to an outburst of medieval horribleness when he talked a couple of years ago of Tony Blair being “unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisersâ€?.

So, boring though it is, you have to be a bit careful when making fun of Lord Levy. You can, of course, lampoon a rich, flashy, influential Jew as a thief and a crook if you think he is one. But you can’t, Rory, you just can’t dress up as a 19th-century moneylender with a big fake nose to do it.

You could dress up as Dick Turpin. But it wouldn’t be funny. Because Turpin rode horses and fired guns and shagged wenches, and as a result is a hero to the English in a way that a man with a bandy-legged walk and an irritating nasal voice can never be.

After declaring that Levy’s race was “entirely irrelevantâ€? to the sketch, Channel 4 went on to defend itself with reference to Ron Moody’s Fagin in Oliver!, noting that the actor had worn “a prosthetic hooked nose . . . which had become a defining part of the character’s identityâ€?.

Except that Fagin was not a creation of Moody, but of Charles Dickens. And he was a specifically anti-Semitic creation. In the first 38 chapters of Oliver Twist there are 257 references simply to “the Jewâ€? against 42 to “Faginâ€? or “the old manâ€?. There is nothing “entirely irrelevantâ€? about his race.

Furthermore, Fagin’s hooked nose is not a jolly vaudeville gag created by Moody, it is integral to a character dismissed in the novel as: “A very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair . . . shrugging up his shoulders, and distorting every feature with a hideous grin.â€?

Dickens insisted for years that Fagin was not intended as a racist caricature but, under pressure from Jews (as quick then to voice their indignation as now), he gradually came to accept, over the years, that it was one.It was specifically the badgering of Eliza Davis, the wife of the man (described by Dickens as a “Jew money-lenderâ€?) who bought Dickens’s house in 1860, that led to a change of heart.

Soon after her suggestion that “. . . it would well repay an author to examine more closely the manners and character of the British Jews and to represent them as they really areâ€?, Dickens began to change the way he played Fagin in his famous readings, so that a review of an 1869 performance observed: “There is no nasal intonation; a bent back but no shoulder-shrug: the conventional attributes are omitted.â€?

He also stopped a reprint of Oliver Twist half way through a run and re- edited the unprinted half — which is why descriptions of Fagin after chapter 38 hardly involve the word “Jewâ€? at all — and created the charming and wholly positive Jewess Riah in Our Mutual Friend.

Based on this, I have to assume that Dickens himself, the older, mellower Dickens, aware of having encouraged what Eliza Davis called “a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrewâ€?, would not have done what Bremner did.

I tell you what, though: in some ways Fagin’s Jewishness may be his saving grace. In most recent stage and film productions of the story, Fagin’s race has been very much played down, with unsettling results. Because if he is not a Jew, and thus concerned exclusively with the accumulation of wealth, then what is he doing living with all these young boys?

Make Fagin an old Catholic in dirty clothes who takes a shine to little golden-haired Oliver, and you have a very different story. I can’t help but see him chasing the scampering orphans round the stage singing: “You gotta pinch a bottom or two . . .â€?