Downton Abbey’s Jewish links

December 22, 2014 by Jenni Frazer
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It is the last word in Englishness, the soap opera to end all soap operas, everyone’s guilty pleasure.

But its creator Julian Fellowes had a surprise up his aristocratic sleeve for the latest season of Downton Abbey: a Jewish storyline.

Downton Abbey Series V cast

Downton Abbey Series 5 cast

The fifth season of the compulsive global tv hit is due to open in the US in January. But British viewers have already had an unexpected double whammy of Lord Fellowes’ affection for 1920s’ ethnic minorities, since the last episodes in Season Five not only feature Jews and anti-Semitism aplenty, but they were directed by a Jewish woman director, Minkie Spiro.

Minkie’s background is every bit as fascinating as the fictional Downton Abbey she is bringing to the screen. Her mother, Nitza, is an Israeli educator; her father Robin is an ex-member of the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars, who, after Harrow and Oxford was unexpectedly bitten by the bug of Jewish history. Together her parents went on to have seven children and to found the Spiro Ark, one of the best-known Jewish education institutes in the UK, still going strong almost four decades after its founding.

Minkie, herself married to an Israeli who runs a highly regarded delicatessen in north London called – what else? Minkie’s – is a diminutive 44-year-old, an erstwhile Fulbright scholar with a slew of directing experience under her belt. A nominee of Bafta (the British Academy of Film and Television Arts), Minkie Spiro’s name has become familiar to British TV viewers, lauded for her documentaries as well as for her feature material.

The award-winning Downton Abbey, however, is something else. A sleeper hit which has found a place in UK television legend, Downton was barely expected to be recommissioned after the first season, let alone make it to its fifth season and apparently be cantering on through the 1920s towards the outbreak of the Second World War.

Its success remains something of a mystery, since much of the acting – apart from the national treasure that is Dame Maggie Smith – is simply dreadful, often outclassed by Isis the labrador. The plots are frequently predictable rubbish, storylines rise and fall and disappear without resolution. The programmes reached a glorious level of preposterous nonsense when the now-departed Matthew Crawley, apparently seriously wounded in the wedding department during the First World War, miraculously arose from his wheelchair and managed to leave Lady Mary with an heir, all working parts in order.

And yet serious and not-so-serious actors clamour to be part of the series, from Richard E Grant, who plays a rather annoying art critic in Season Five, to a completely over-the-top Shirley MacLaine last year, playing the mother of Cora, Lady Grantham. Cora, we learned, sported Levinson as her maiden name and many were the bets that Shirley MacLaine was going to turn out to be the archetypal Jewish mamma from hell. Sadly two Jewish parents might have proved too much for the future bride of the Earl of Grantham, but just hold on to the background of Cora’s father, as it certainly comes into play in the new series.

Jenni Frazer

Jenni Frazer

Part of the attraction may well be the enjoyment of filming in a real stately home, Highclere Castle, the home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. The beautiful rooms and grounds are made available to the TV crew every few months, although some of the servants’ quarters are filmed in rather more prosaic surroundings in the Hertfordshire suburb of Elstree, only a stone’s throw from the heartland of Jewish north-west London.

Minkie Spiro has become so popular with cast and crew alike that she has been chosen to direct the two-hour special to be shown on Christmas Day in the UK. As Julian Fellowes has established a bit of a reputation for killing off lead characters in the Christmas show, Downton-watchers are agog to see who is due to depart. Will a rabbi or a synagogue feature in the Christmas show? Minkie’s not telling but she has said mysteriously that she is the perfect person to direct the special and the opening episodes of Season Six which follow next year. Perhaps Carson is converting? Or Lady Edith making an early visit to Mandate Palestine? Bad as it is, I can’t wait.

A spokesperson for Channel 7 told J-Wire that series 5 of Downton Abbey will screen shortly after the Australian Open Tennis.

Jenni Frazer is a London-based journalist and contributor to J-Wire…

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