The Man in Mankowitz

By Michael Stern, March 6, 2013
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Wolf Mankowitz blossomed from the 1950s through to the 1980s, during which time he produced plays for the theatre, film screenplays, TV programmes, short stories and literary criticism, among other creations across several genres. He was also an expert on pottery and porcelain, an impresario, a club owner, a film-maker, broadcaster, and enjoyed a successful antique business.

A Jew brought up in London’s East End before and during the Second World War, Mankowitz adhered to his Jewish heritage throughout his career.

He was a self-confessed Marxist who was investigated by MI5 and, as a supporter of Israel, worked there hoping to build up the country’s film industry until he lost a great deal of his own money. He was a large man in every way, with an imposing presence.

In Anthony J. Dunn’s meticulously researched literary biography The Worlds of Wolf Mankowitz (Vallentine Mitchell, £50, pb £19.95) his output is studied in great detail from his Cambridge days as a pupil of the renowned literary critic F R Leavis and associate of Raymond Williams, through to the last years of his life when domiciled in Ireland, where he wrote his last novellas.

Despite the high number of Mankowitz’s works of substance, Dunn manages to describe and discuss every one of them from brilliant one-act dramas like The Bespoke Overcoat and successes such as the films and stories, A Kid for Two Farthings and Expresso Bongo, to failures like Belle (a musical about Dr Crippen) and The Boychick (both of which I had the misfortune of seeing).

Though Mankowitz undoubtedly displayed the popular touch, he showed his scholarship in his later writings. These included Gioconda, which drew heavily on the philosophy of art and considered the impact of the deconstructionists and the surrealists, and Exquisite Cadaver, a novel the about the ambiguities of moral and artistic rates of exchange.

Dunn locates Mankowitz’s significance as a link between “elite” and popular culture, something he closely analyses throughout the book. He believes that Mankowitz is now forgotten because his work came between the “old wave” of such Jewish writers as Simon Blumenfeld and William Goldman and the “new wave” such as Pinter, Wesker and Frederic Raphael. His informative record of a man and his times could revive interest in this fine Jewish writer.

Last updated: 3:37pm, March 6 2013