The truly remarkable thing about the BBC’s programme, Canvey: The Promised Island, is that it was made at all. So many attempts have been made over the years to portray the Strictly Orthodox community, and so many of them have ended in failure, often because of the understandable reluctance of the community to be filmed, photographed or interviewed.
But filmmaker Riete Oord, who produced and directed this winning documentary, struck gold when she came across this gift of a story, the move of Chasidic Jews to the improbable Essex enclave of Canvey Island, in a desperate attempt to find more space for their families.
Oord’s film depended on three pillars: the Chasid Naftali, who, with his wife Miriam longed for a decent place outside Stamford Hill to bring up their growing brood; the less Orthodox but knowledgeable Jewish neighbour, Steve, who acted as a sort of interpreter for the Chasidim and the Canvey Islanders; and finally, and most bizarrely, Chris Fenwick, the long-time manager of the pub rock band, Dr Feelgood, said to be Canvey Island’s greatest export.
As Oord’s commentary made clear, Canvey Island is an odd destination for any kind of outsider, let alone Chasidic Jews. It is said to be 70 per cent white and Christian, and its church is packed on Sundays to hear rousing sermons from its Barbados-born minister, the Rev David Tudor.
Seventy per cent is a number which resonates in Stamford Hill, too — that’s the number of Jewish families dependent on child and housing benefits. And only 15 per cent of the Strictly Orthodox men are in full-time employment.
Canvey Island, if it has a mindset, is just as insular in its own way as the incoming Chasidim. St George’s flags flutter from buildings and many of the residents pronounce themselves English, rather than British. They are utterly pro-Brexit and if you were looking for the most unsuitable place in Britain to put a group of Strictly Orthodox, strangely-dressed Chasidim, Canvey would be high on the list.
But that is reckoning without the cheerful optimism of Chris Fenwick, who is absolutely determined — despite the many hurdles in his way — to welcome the newcomers to Canvey. Not everyone is of the same mind as Chris: Barry, due to be the next mayor, is dubious about the level of integration possible between the two communities, and expresses unhappiness when a group of Jewish women venture on to the beach — but as far away from Canvey sunbathers as they can be.
“Why are they so far away?” worries Barry. But the women, many of whom have plainly never had the opportunity to take their children to the beach before, are quietly enjoying themselves, even if it does mean splashing about in the sea fully dressed. Almost certainly they don’t want to sit next to the Canveyites for reasons of modesty — and also because they are unsure of their welcome.
The veteran Stamford Hill housing guru, Ita Symons, is more aware than most of previous attempts to break out of the London neighbourhood in a bid to garner more space. She recalls a trial in Milton Keynes. “But the animosity we experienced there! And then I was told about Canvey Island. And I went, and I was impressed”. It was the warmth of the welcome which impressed her, which doesn't reflect well on Milton Keynes.
The Chasidim, according to the film, are taking things slowly. The community now own 30 houses on Canvey and one of the loveliest moments is when Naftali, living in near squalor in Stamford Hill, sees for the first time the property he hopes to rent — the garden, he tells the builder, is 12 times the size of his present home.
A benefactor has bought an unused Canvey school which has been turned into a temporary shul and community centre. Fresh meat and fish deliveries will arrive from London on a weekly basis, until the community sets up its own shops, then shuls and schools.
In a meet-and-greet, co-ordinated by Chris and Steve, fraught with possible pitfalls; a heavily tattooed Canvey Islander insists to a Chasidic chef that he has to come and open a bagel shop — “and I’ll be your best customer!” he roars. The chef nods, nervously, unsure whether the tattooed Biff (yes, that really is his name) is winding him up.
Chris takes a group of Chasidic schoolboys on a tour of the island. “Think Victorian,” the Orthodox adults tell him. So no mention of pubs and clubs, but it’s fine to talk about the downed planes of the Second World War. And the children, and the adults, have a great time.
It’s left to Ita Symons to thank the Canvey Islanders — whom she refers to as “the non-Jewish community” — I doubt whether the Canveyites have ever defined themselves in that way before — for “being so warm and welcoming to us. I hope we will not let you down”.
It’s fine, now. But I wonder whether the delicate relationship between Canvey and the Chasidim will survive a tripling of the current Jewish population, and whether the live and let live attitude will prevail.
Just the same, this was a joyous portrait of two communities nervously reaching out to each other, despite the plinky-plonky Fiddler-style musical soundtrack. Maybe Riete Oord will revisit in a year’s time and let us know how they are getting on.