Novelist Howard Jacobson retraees his roots to discover the meaning of Jewishness in a new Channel 4 series Roots Sehmoots. Aaron Hieklin trails along.
Howard Jacobson returns to the phone. ‘lt's okay.‘ he whoops. ‘I got rid of the plumber — now. let’s go back on all that and slag off the (ioyimf So we do.
Roots .S'r‘limouls. Jacobson‘s three-part exploration ol'just what it means to be Jewish. is no schmaltzy celebration of ethnic twecdom. That‘s not the Channel 4 style. and Jacobson is too cynical anyway.
‘I was interested in seeing Jews at their worst as well as their best. at their most alive as well as their deadest.‘ he explains. He doesn‘t short-change us. Roots Sr'hmrmfs covers global territory. traversing a community which spans time as it spans tradition. Touchingly personal and nakedly honest. novelist Jacobson is the wandering Jew who rediscovers himself. ‘I wanted to fall in love with my people again.’ he confides.
Fall in love‘.’ An old sceptic like Jacobson'.’ The Jews should be so lucky. He says himself that you can‘t feel rootsie if you don‘t feel treesie. Now. all of a sudden. he‘s a laburnum. and tracing his roots around the world. ‘lt's actually terrific to belong to a culture which is so intelligent about the world. so in love with being alive.’
Jacobson's enthusiasm is infectious. Any minute now I‘m about to leap from my chair and recite the Passover toast: next year in Jerusalem. ‘You can observe it. you can see it. you can be curious about it. but being Jewish is not a portable experience.’ says Jacobson. 'You have to be one.‘ Enough already.
Roots Schmrmls takes in everything. from a very Brooklyn Jewish New Year in the truly awful
(‘oncord Hotel. to a Gay synagogue service in LA.
and Christmas in Bethlehem. For the most part it is funny. sharp and only a little sentimental. ‘There can be no harm in just delighting in oneself.‘ says Jacobson. ‘I don‘t think urbane gentiles mind that. The greatest novels. the greatest pieces of music. are specifically located. so if you get a very particular mood about being Jewish. being born in a particular time with a particular set of attitudes. people love it.‘
lfJacobson is giving succour to those Jews who want to embrace the richness of their culture. he is not about to concede any ground to the sanctimonious. ‘We shouldn't allow ourselves to be sentimental and big-eyed about the fact that we‘ve got a few fiddlers on the roof.‘ he says. ‘The Hassidim (orthodox Jews) are not sweet. they‘re not kind. they have closed minds.’ It's a position he clings to throughout the series. a defiant two-fingers at an establishment which views his secularism with distaste.
Television is a newish departure for Jacobson. although he did make Journey Into The Land ()fO: last year. For ten years he has written novels for an
lloward Jacobson goes back to his roots audience who don‘t really understand where he’s coming from. Unlike America. where being Jewish i.~ a national style. English culture. he claims. is inimical to Jewishness. ‘As a Jewish writer you love to bait it. you have a love-hate relationship with it. but the gentiles don‘t actually get you.‘
‘I like the fact that television engages you in actualities.‘ he admits. ‘lt frees me from the dead world of the literati. All the stupidest people I know are novelists.‘ Jacobson‘s bile is bitter indeed. ‘lf you're a dickhead but you've got a degree. you write a novel. and if you’re another dickhead you review it and if you're a pair of dickheads together you just award prizes to each other.‘
Jacobson is no respecter of protocol. ‘lt's a very well-trodden path. the Jewish thing.‘ he says. ‘and I‘m sick of the piety. Roms .S'r‘hmmns is funny. it‘s vulgar. it's rude. it's anti-Christian. and it's not being cute about ourselves.‘ Chutzpah? Jacobson might have invented the world.
Roots .S'r‘hmonts starts on (‘humwl 4 on Monday 8 March (1! 9pm.
:— Back on the case
Back in those innocent monochrome evenings of the 60s when Harold Wilson was a dangerous leftie and the Beatles hadn’t reached this far north, ‘ the extended Scottish family would ‘ huddle round the fire of a Sunday I evening to lap up the less than scintillating adventures of young Dr Finlay. Bill Simpson played him as an ' idealistic young pro, the sort of chap l your Mum would love as a son-in-law, . the scripts were Sunday Post meets The Dandy, and the public lapped it up. In a move that is a result either of
woefully unimaginative desperation or an eye for astuter targeted period nostalgia, Scottish Television have '
David Bintoul plays the middle-aged Doc.
complacency back home.’
bought the BBC’s rights to the good Doc and resurrected him for their major ITV network drama offering. Some fifteen years older, Finlay is played by the fortysomething actor
‘lt’s rather more astringent,’ he says of the new series. ‘llopetully it retains some of the charm of the original, but the period’s changed to 1946. Major Finlay comes back from the war, not really sure what kind of Britain he’s coming back to. Not sure whether he wants to be a small-town Scottish GP. He’s rather soured, emotionally churned up by the war, that sort of thing. He finds rather a lot of
Some care has been taken to ensure the series has a convincing period feel with issues from the immediate post- war period aftecting the affairs of
; Tannochbrae in a way that wouldn’t f ; have been envisaged in the original. I ; ‘There’s a lot of chat about the setting ; up of the HHS which Finlay is very for ' but a lot of folk are very agin,’ says i Hintoul. ‘It does have quite a strong ! ; public, social political dimension. It’s .' not perhaps quite as couthy as the last one.’ i Without being unduly unkind to Rlntoul, the new mature Finlay isn’t quite the sex symbol he used to be. With this in mind the producers have . introduced a smouldering young locum played by Jason Fleming to add the all-important ‘F Factor’ and get up Finlay’s nose at the same time. ‘We don’t get on’ says Bintoul ominously. I bet they don’t. (Amy Druszewski)
Dr Finlay starts on Scottish Television | on Friday 5 March at 9pm. I
The List 26 February—l 1 March l9‘)3 53