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'Shtisel' (Netflix)- A Better World?

Imagine if you will, a world where there are no violent crimes or pornography, women are not leered at, where people don’t keep checking their smartphones for the latest message, update or ‘like’, a place where the internet is not present, and you only use your mobile phone to actually talk to someone. A community where once a week people remember God, refrain from any deliberate activity or work, contemplate their spiritual life and spend quality time with their family.

Welcome then to the world of ‘Shtisel’.  No it’s not a new swear word but a rather magnificent 3 season series on Netflix which, in my book, is probably the best show you haven’t seen but is among the most spiritually fulfilling you can find. Forget the likes of ‘Line of Duty’ (and that underwhelming ending) and instead allow yourself to be charmed by a generous, God filled, light-hearted and almost nostalgic wonder of a show.

Shtisel is an Israeli TV drama (in Hebrew but don’t worry it has English subtitles) which tells the story of  four generations of a Haredi family living in Jerusalem and follows their ordinary lives as they fall in and out of love, deal with the bereavements, heartaches and choices they have to make to bring up their families and live and work by their faith. The Haredi community is an Ultra-Orthodox form of Judaism which lives strictly according to Jewish law and is opposed to most modern values and practices. I suppose the closest Christian example to it would be the Amish community in the USA and Canada who live simply and reject modern technology, although they are clearly of different faiths.

The series has become such a success because it charms through showing you a group of people where God and family are central to their lives and where they live a simpler, less materialist life. Its main character Akiva (Michael Aloni) is a twenty some guy teaching in the local Cheder (Torah school) who has a talent for drawing, but should he follow that gift outside of his community or is it his duty to get married, to bring up children as his people have for generations? Can he find the right woman and life partner to accept him as he truly is? Over its 33- 45 minute episodes we live their lives and find out that answer and more.

Part of its appeal is how it very gently lets us into what would seem to most people a fairly closeted and regimented world. A place where everyone entering a home touches the Mezuzah- a decorative door post that holds a parchment with a Jewish prayer from the Book of Deuteronomy (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”). When anyone eats or drinks anything they recite “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth”, and when someone dies, close family members take part in a Shiva where for 7 days you stay at home grieving over the departed. However, its aim is not to judge or condemn how they live their lives but to simply allow us to observe and understand them and we soon get charmed by their human frailties.

What Shtisel also shows us is the pressure and conflict between what a faith requires of individuals and how the modern world outside operates. As Haredims, day to day life is strictly controlled. Women have to dress modestly -not showing shoulders or too much of their legs. Wearing trousers is forbidden and married women have to wear a head covering. Men and women are separated in Synagogues and often on public transport . Men have to wear a black suit, white shirt, Homburg hat with payot (side locks) and beards are obligatory. Films and TV are opposed as is any form of secular education. You are married through ‘matchmakers’ and those who leave the communities can be shunned.

It is a way of life frankly that our current modern, more liberal society would not be able to comprehend or, if they had a choice,- allow. In modern parlance, it would surely be ‘cancelled’ for a variety of reasons. And yet, it can still be appealing.

It can teach something important about how people can live their lives in honouring God and in a number of respects, it shows us a society that can be preferable to the one which is currently being shaped in our own lives. In the West we have a ‘24/7’ society, where we are encouraged to buy and consume more, to be selfish and have what we want (not what we need). We have become increasingly secular, and society is more and more intolerant of alternative points of view whether that is about religion, racism, gender, sexuality, or politics. We are the poorer for that.

So, Shtisel is a welcome relief to show us another way of doing things. Although its characters’ lives are far from perfect with a variety of imbalances and inequalities in their own world, they do have some things that our modern society is desperately lacking and which we could be the better for.

'Enemy At The Door' (1978-1980)- An Elegy of Appreciation

So, this Sunday (28 March) Talking Pictures TV will show the very last episode of the outstanding Enemy At The Door that has been our companion on the last 26 Sunday nights. Its final episode appropriately titled Escape was the last episode of Series 2- which was also the last ever made. That is a great pity as the show which explored the occupation of the Channel Islands by Germany in WWII took in the years from June 1940 to April 1943 and was of a consistently high standard, and later series would have surely looked at further deprivation that the likes of Guernsey suffered as well of course at the joyous liberation to come.

However, Enemy At The Door is easily  the best portrayal of the only part of British territory that had been occupied by a foreign invander since 1066. Although filmed in Jersey the series focussed on Guernsey and what life was like under the Nazis and its strength has been to give perspectives from both sides of the occupation.

It originally ran from 1978 to 1980 and was made at a time when wartime dramas about people living under the German occupation were very much in vogue. One of the first was ITV’s Manhunt (1970), followed by BBC’s Colditz (1972-1974) which set a very high bar in terms of the quality of its production, and then came Secret Army (1977-79). If Enemy At The Door is similar to any other series then it is Secret Army which looked at how Belgian people and especially its resistance dealt with life under Nazi rule and was hugely successful.

The creator of Enemy At The Door is a familiar name to Talking Pictures TV’s viewers -Michael Chapman- who had previously produced Public Eye, Van der Valk and later on served as Executive Producer for over 1,100 episodes of The Bill as well as writing a number of episodes of Rooms, and you can see his careful and observant touches in the two series themselves.

At the core of Enemy At The Door is the relationship between the commander of the German occupying force Major-Doktor Richter (Public Eye’s Alfred Burke) and Dr Martel who in effect is a kind of notional head of the Guernsey community (the ever reliable Bernard Horsfall). The series shows how Richter is the ‘good German’ who is not a Nazi Party faithful but a soldier who is trying to oversee the occupation with as much ‘harmony’ as possible. For his part, Dr Martel is trying to get the best possible conditions for his community to live under but at the same try avoid collaborating with the invaders.

The real villain though is Hauptmann Reinecke (Simon Cadell) who most definitely is a Nazi Party faithful and whilst Richter seeks to give Channel Islanders the benefit of the doubt on incidences, Reinecke wants strict discipline, enforcement  and SS interrogation to be the order of the day, leading to multiple clashes during the series. Here, Simon Cadell shows that he was a very fine actor – and was so much more than simply Jeffrey Fairbrother in Hi-de-Hi!

Most of the Enemy At The Door’s stories focus around two Channel Island families that of Dr Martel’s and of Helen Porteous -especially her son Peter (Richard Heffer). There is tension around the two families as the latter and Clare Martel (Emily Richard) are strong Resisters and are critical of Dr Martel’s closeness with their invaders. This reaches a climax during  the end of Series 1 episode Judgement of Solomon, that leads to both Dr Martel and Peter Porteous being arrested for spying and being sent to prison in France-leading to a nervous breakdown for Clare.

In fact, we see little more of Clare as she is supposedly being rehabilitated by a group of nuns. Emily Richard who played her with so much verve and passion later went on to have a major role in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987) as well as being part of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and was last heard of as running London historical tours.

Through its 26 episodes covering 3 years of the occupation, we see a variety of subjects covered on what people on the islands had to submit to. They included the shooting of islanders trying to escape, a librarian sent to jail for refusing to ban books the Germans disagreed with, the rape of a local girl by a soldier, black market activities and racism. In the stand out episodes The Jerrybag & The Right Blood, we see the impact of a local girl falling in love with a German soldier and the dilemma of trying to bring up their baby in those circumstances-and the tragic consequences that follow.

A major reason for Enemy At The Door’s success has been its use of a range of outstanding British character actors which reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of acting talent- John Malcolm (Together), Pam St Clement & Michael Cashman (EastEnders), Ray Smith (Public Eye & Rooms), Antony Head (Buffy The Vampire Slayer), Alun Armstrong, John Nettles, Joss Ackland, David Hayman, Martin Jarvis-the list goes on.

We shall miss Enemy At The Door but it has been an accurate and poignant memorial of those difficult days which hopefully will have educated as well as entertaining many.

The good news of course is that in its place is the equally wonderful The Champions (1968-1969)- another winner Talking Pictures!

'The Angel Who Pawned Her Harp' (1954)

Recently shown on Talking Pictures TV (but always likely to be shown again) is the charming and very sweet ‘The Angel Who Pawned Her Harp’ (1954)- ostensibly, it is about an angel (Diane Cilento) who is sent down to the very appropriate Angel Islington in London, who in pawning her harp to get some money to live, is required to show everyone that she meets the right path in which their true happiness lies. Written off and looked down upon by most of its contemporary critics, it is a slight film (it runs not much more than an hour) but one that is delightful in a number of ways.

The credit for its charm is largely down to one person-Diane Cilento who is front and centre of the fantasy. She needs to be impressive for us to believe in her and she is. Although the future Mrs Sean Connery would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in ‘Tom Jones’ (1963), to me, this was her best film performance. She is sweetness and charm personified in what can be seen as almost a London version of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ (1947).

The Angel (she has no other name) comes to earth and is introduced to a number of characters whose fate she has in her hand. There is Len (Phillip Guard) who works for pawnbroker Mr Webman (Felix Aylmer) but fancies Jenny (Shelia Sweet) daughter of the music loving local Sgt (Edward Evans). Mr Webman is a scrooge like cynic about life though, but his real passion is his love of his music boxes. Meanwhile, Len is trying to get up the courage to ask Jenny (or any girl) out, whilst her father neglects his wife- all things that Angel needs to nudge along, so that they realise what they have to do to be happy.

It is all set in a non-gentrified and monochrome part of North London and is a post war happy little community where kids are charmed by music boxes and even local criminals like Alfie Bass are a bit soft. The humour is very light hearted and understated by writer Charles Terrot (whose book this is based on and was previously turned into a 1951 TV show). There is for example a sweet moment when Len who desperately wants to take a girl dancing asks Angel out which she happily accepts- astonished by this, Len says “Are you in love with me?”. She says “Yes, of course.” “Crumbs” is Len’s cry to which Angel assures him “Don’t look so worried, I love everybody”.

‘The Angel Who Pawned Her Harp’ is not a very demanding picture but what it does do is engage your heart and emotions so that you do care what happens to the characters of this little community and makes you feel a little bit lighter and brighter afterwards.

If you can’t wait for Talking Pictures TV’s next showing, Renown Films have a special DVD of it available for £10- see the details below:

The Angel Who Pawned Her Harp – Renown Films

Eyewitness (1970)

The latest underrated gem from Talking Pictures TV is the hardly ever talked about Eyewitness (1970) with a starry British cast of Mark Lester (Oliver!), the ever lovely Susan George (Straw Dogs et al), Jeremy Kemp (Z-Cars etc) and the very reliable Lionel Jefferies (wrote and directed The Railway Children).

Its history and origins are interesting as Eyewitness is principally based on the novel of the same name written under an alias by John Harris, who was better known as the author of The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1953) which was turned into the film starring Michael Redgrave and Dirk Bogarde the year after. However, the theme is an old one that goes back to Aesop’s Fable best known as The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

So, Mark Lester plays Ziggy a young boy who whilst living with his sister Pippa (Susan George) and grandfather (Lionel Jefferies) on a sun drenched unidentified island (filmed in Malta) witnesses the assassination of an African leader. In horror, Ziggy disappears whilst the assassin and accomplice run away and plan how to hunt down the only witness to the killing. Pippa by this time is comforted by a hunky new boyfriend called would you believe it -‘Tom Jones’ and played by Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1967) veteran Tony Bonner who seems to be channelling our own Paul Nicholas, so similar are they in appearance.

Whilst the police chief (Jeremy Kemp) declares martial law in order to hunt down the assassin(s), Ziggy returns home to Pippa, her new boyfriend, and their grandfather to work out what to do next. Pippa in particular knows that Ziggy spends most of his time telling ‘whoppers’ and she doesn’t trust his story of witnessing the killing. So, the scene is set for the police to try and capture the assassin and accomplices, who in turn want to silence Ziggy, whilst Pippa only really has eyes for Mr Jones.

Eyewitness is a surprising delight- it has the great benefit of an excellent pacey and at times, very funny, script by Ronald Harwood (who would go on to receive an Academy Award for the writing of the Roman Polanski film The Pianist (2002) ). It is always good to watch Susan George especially as in this film she is asked to do more than just wear a series of short skirts and pout – and to demonstrate some of her underrated acting chops. She and the director of Eyewitness (John Hough) would go on to work together on 1974’s Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. Listen out also for the music- co-ordinated by future film director Jonathan Demme who went on to win an Academy Award for Silence of the Lambs 21 years later.

However, the real star of Eyewitness is the incomparable Lionel Jefferies as the very military regimented grandfather (he himself was a proud holder of the ‘Burma Star’). His family have their dinners with him dressed in full Mess uniform. When interrupted by the police he remarks “It’s gala night in the Mess tonight- cold soup and burnt pud”! He has also not forgotten his military training as at one point he goes on a commando type raid and turns a handy paraffin lamp and bottle of Brandy into a Molotov cocktail.

So, Eyewitness gives us Susan George, Lionel Jefferies and sun drenched Malta – what’s not to like?