For this year’s Sonntag Memorial Event, in honour of the founder of the Jewish Quarterly, Maureen Lipman was in conversation with David Aaronovitch. In this extended extract, they discuss the family shul, cosmetic surgery, the perils of soundbite television - and the difficult climate for Jewish creativity today.
David Aaronovitch: One of the things I wanted to ask about was being a person who at various times has been identified as a Jewish performer and at other times as just a performer. When you were training, did you think of yourself as a ‘Jewish actress’?
Maureen Lipman: I never thought of myself as a ‘Jewish actress’, but we live in an age of pigeon holes. I thought of myself as a Jewish woman who acted – that was my job. I was born in Hull and there was a small Jewish community – now much smaller. But when I say small, there were three shuls – there was the rich shul, there was the average shul and there was my father’s shul. My father’s shul was just two Victorian houses knocked into one. My mother hated it, the women had to sit in the back, they couldn’t see anything. The men were davening at the front, the women were talking at the back, and nobody wore a nice hat. It was appalling from my mother’s point of view and only on Yom Kippur could she walk to one of the other shuls and check out the competition. But my father wanted to be a big fish in a small pond.
At school I was proud to be different. I was born in 1946, we were the good guys, there was no antisemitism. I was glad I didn’t have to go to morning Assembly and it was like dishes – I had a set of friends for the weekends and a set of friends for other days. I didn’t feel superior, but I didn’t feel in any way prejudiced against.
When I went to drama school, probably the only way people could have told I was Jewish was that I over-accessorized. On my first day at LAMDA [London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art], I wore a green knitted dress, bottle-green hat, green tights, and I’d painted my boots green. I remember another actor saying to me: ‘What have you come as, dear, a blade of grass?’
When I started work, I generally played northern working-class girls – the girl who didn’t get the man, the best friend who made jokes and then didn’t get the man. The pattern was set. I think the only Jewish part I played was in [my late husband] Jack Rosenthal’s Evacuees  – until the British Telecom ads featuring Beattie.
Who knew that I would become a household name? I was amazed by the wave of Schadenfreude which hit me when those commercials were on. And I made 55, although they didn’t show them all. Up till then people said things like ‘Good old Mo, we always like it when she comes on’ and suddenly I couldn’t go into a restaurant without people making ringing noises or crying out ‘Yes, she’s got an ology!’ It was a feeling I didn’t like very much and I realized it was to do with money. With Jews, the jokes that are to do with money are never the funny ones – they are the ones which get your hackles up, particularly if non-Jews tell them. When I was just a jobbing actress, it was fine, but then there was a feeling I’d landed in a bed of roses.
I was very up-front about being Jewish, I didn’t know any better. The first thing that happened to me on leaving drama school was that an agent asked to see me and took me straight round to a plastic surgeon, and within five minutes I’d got a compass on my nose. You may be thinking: did she or didn’t she? I didn’t – I just thought it would be less painful to change my agent than to change my nose.
Nobody saw me as a Jewish actress, I played all sorts of things, and along came Beattie and then I was typecast for the next ten years. In many ways I’m not complaining. Who would have got to see me in The Pianist  if I hadn’t been up-front about being Jewish and made jokes about it on chat shows like Parkinson even in the sixties? People weren’t telling Jewish jokes then – particularly women – but I’ve told jokes since I was 12 years old.
David Aaronovitch: It’s nice to be able to identify with Jewishness by telling jokes in a way that a non-Jewish actress couldn’t.
Maureen Lipman:Yes, I’m quite snobbish about which forms of Jewishness I find acceptable. For example, I find overtly sexual Jewish female characters – being out there and up for it – vaguely offensive. I’m anxious that Jews are seen to be quite ethical. I’m always aware of what Neil Simon calls The Finger – so far is good and a little further is offensive to my audience . . .
Take a look at The Pianist, which was universally acknowledged to be a great film and won lots of Oscars. I’m not saying it wasn’t a good film, but it was the acceptable face of Jewish heroism – in other words, no heroism. It said that art saves a life, and it’s true – art did save his life. It said there were good Poles, there were good Germans, there were bad Jews. It was Polanski’s take on a story of salvation. And it was very timely, following Schindler’s List , which had a slight injection of schmaltz the book didn’t have. But since then it’s been really hard to get a project off the ground that in any way is Jewish.
David Aaronovitch: Beattie could only have been such a success because of the relatively benign views of Jews and Jewishness which obtained at the time. Are you suggesting that is no longer true?
Maureen Lipman: Yes, that’s right, because we’re not the new wave of immigrants and we’re subject to the same judgements as anyone else – whereas for a while we were a sort of protected species. Because of Jack Rosenthal’s Bar Mitzvah Boy  and Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width, there are no secrets any more, we’re mainstream, and maybe that’s a good thing. Meanwhile anything with a bindhi in the middle is great. Let’s have Monsoon Wedding and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, let’s look at the other minorities. And that’s great, I think we should, but I just know it’s really tough to get anything made about Jews any more. And, let’s face it, the whole business of anti-Zionism and where it becomes antisemitism is just too damn convenient. We’re in a defensive position, just like the Israelis.
David Aaronovitch: I’m interested in the way that something like Bar Mitzvah Boy took a very large audience to a place it had never been before.
Maureen Lipman: That’s the beauty of drama. Jack could take a miniature situation and make it universal – nobody felt excluded. There were lots of complaints in the Jewish Chronicle about all the hundreds of portions of chopped liver and so on. We could all see the characters in Bar Mitzvah Boy were based on people like ones we knew, but perhaps we didn’t want to see it out there, because we were afraid of what I’m talking about – a return to a sort of easy antisemitism.
David Aaronovitch: I wanted to ask about one of your career choices. In portraying Joyce Grenfell on the stage in Re: Joyce! , you obviously chose someone for whom you have a passion and whose comedy you love. But she is also someone quintessentially English. Unless you are now going to tell me about her long-lost Jewish grandmother . . .
Maureen Lipman: Although she definitely had traces of the antisemitism of the time, I am attracted to very English people. I don’t know why that is, but where I justify my choice of Joyce Grenfell is that she was an outsider – and all great observers and commentators come from a world of outsiders, because you look in without joining. And she was an outsider because she came from the Astor family and was included in all the Astor things, the weekends and the dressing up and the parties, but she had no money. Her mother was a ‘bolter’ who ran off several times. So the standard idea of Joyce Grenfell, as coming from an absolutely rock-solid background, is wrong, she was a bit pillar to post. And her mother was American. But when it was announced that I was going to play her, I got some very nasty letters: ‘Keep your hands off! She was English!’ Just turn on LBC or go on a blog and you’ll find people like that who have nothing to do but air their fascist views.
I’ve had an incredibly lucky career, I’ve never been out of work except when I’ve chosen to be – in a profession where 80 per cent are unemployed. Why would I complain? The Jewish thing has helped me to get parts that other people couldn’t get. When I was asked to play in Oklahoma!, the director Trevor Nunn asked everyone to introduce ourselves and I said: ‘I’ve been offered the part because Trevor wanted it to be done totally Jewish and called Oy-klahoma!’ Some of the cast believed it. I’ve got nothing to complain about, so like most Jews I’ve got to find something . . .
David Aaronovitch: This summer, you became a target of absolutely ferocious criticism because you were understood to have said Israel holds life dear but that on the other side of the border they hold life cheap.
Maureen Lipman: I foolishly agreed to appear on a late night programme hosted by Andrew Neil [This Week, BBC2, 13 July 2006]. I say foolishly because it’s a soundbite programme and everything is reduced to soundbites. Diane Abbott MP had obviously been primed and announced that the Israeli reaction had been ‘disproportionate’. What I wanted to say was that it came about because rockets had been going into Israel for a long time and an unprovoked attack had been made on two soldiers. Her point was (and she knew it would wind me up): ‘All they did was capture two soldiers.’
I wanted to reply that, if you live in a country the size of Israel, two soldiers are incredibly important. Instead of saying just that, I said that it’s not the Israelis who are strapping bombs on young children and sending them out to blow themselves and everybody else up. That somehow became: life is much more important to the Israelis than it is to the Palestinians, and I was savaged by people like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and John Pilger in the Independent and New Statesman.
You don’t see most of the people who wrote to the newspapers to express outrage at the Israeli response at the meetings for other humanitarian causes like human rights in Burma – all I want is a level playing field, where the Middle East is given the same attention as Burma and Rwanda and Zimbabwe and everywhere else. But that doesn’t seem to be an argument which carries much weight.
Out of a year’s column in the Guardian I wrote about Israel maybe three times, and always from a defensive point of view. Even though most of the time I wrote about getting my hair cut, I became a ‘Jewish columnist’ – just as I’m a ‘Jewish actress’. Do you ever see the words ‘that well-known Quaker actress Judy Dench’?
We don’t even have to point out that the reporting is one-sided, because it always is – you see the same Palestinian woman wailing and keening over a dead child and then when you go to the Israeli side you see a bullet hole in a small shop. It’s constantly like that. I only defended Israel in the sense that when you have war and terrorism, as they have, for over 50 years, you do sometimes behave badly. The Americans bombed the Chinese Embassy after two days in Kosovo . . . We are judged by different standards, I don’t think anyone could dispute that – the Jews are always judged by different standards.
David Aaronovitch is a journalist, broadcaster and Times columnist
Maureen Lipman is one of Britain’s best-known performers. Major recent roles include Joyce Grenfell in Re: Joyce! (1991), Aunt Eller in Oklahoma! (1998-9), legendary literary agent Peggy Ramsay in Alan Plater’s Peggy for You (1999-2000), the mother of Wladyslaw Szpilman in Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist (2002), Mrs Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie (2003-4) and Florence Foster Jenkins in the Olivier-nominated hit Glorious (2005-6). She has presented two documentaries for the BBC, Hampstead on the Couch and George Eliot: A Scandalous Life, and written seven books as well as regular columns for Options, She, Good Housekeeping and the Guardian. She was married to the writer Jack Rosenthal for 31 years and completed her late husband’s autobiography, published as By Jack Rosenthal in 2005.