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McMafia —Kippahs on for the BBC's latest thriller

McMafia, the BBC's big new drama for 2018, revolves around a family of Jewish mobsters. But are they Jewish enough? Jenni Frazer investigates...

    James Norton in McMafia
    James Norton in McMafia PHOTO: NIck Wall

    Well, who knew that a caviar knife could inflict so much damage?

    Plainly the rabbonim were on to something when it was decreed that sturgeon caviar was not kosher, thus ensuring that no observant Jew was ever going to be done away with by the implement used to eat it.

    I can’t advise, however, on how best to avoid death by smoked salmon carving knives.

    The gory death in question was that of the unfortunate Boris Godman, uncle to James Norton’s bred-in-Britain Alex, brother to the exiled Dmitri, and all of whom, in the BBC’s glitzy drama McMafia, portrayed the most unconvincing Jewish family on TV since… well, I can’t remember when.

    McMafia was the BBC’s big New Year opening show, an eight-episode thriller about the tentacles of the Russian mafia, many of whom, rather disconcertingly, appeared to be Jewish.

    The unique concept of McMafia — a fictionalised version of journalist Misha Glenny’s non-fiction book of a decade ago — was to cast gen-u-wine Russians in Russian-speaking roles.

    James Norton, however, who plays the leading hunk, cannot speak Russian, so the first two episodes have him clunkily in conversation with his father, Dmitri, growling in Russian, and Norton/Alex replying in English. It sounded peculiar, though I suppose it was an improvement on having cod-Russian accents from the British-born actors.

    Entertainingly, Maria Shukshina, said to be Russia’s answer to Meryl Streep, plays Alex’s mother, Oksana, and is seen explaining to her son that when she met his father she was “a party girl”. She didn’t mean she was a good-time girl — but a Party girl, a member of the Communist Party who, despite herself, fell in love with Dmitri the Jew.

    And then we got to the Jewish bit: a Jewish funeral for Boris, he who was dispatched by caviar knife by some thoroughly dodgy-looking bald characters, in revenge for a failed assassination attempt on the Godman family’s old enemy, the evil Vadim.

    Not one person at the levoyah or subsequent shivah looked or sounded Jewish, not least James Norton, kippah perched awkwardly on the back of his head, whose last major TV outing was as the handsome vicar-with-a-conscience in Grantchester. Let’s put it this way: he makes a better vicar.

    I say that this was our first proper realisation that the Godmans (geddit?) were Jewish, but those paying close attention would have sussed this long before, as Uncle Boris tried to inveigle upright Alex into his tangled financial schemes by introducing him to his old Russian buddy Semiyon Kleiman, now living in Israel.

    Kleiman is not only a member of Knesset, but also handily has a daughter in the Mossad. As played by avuncular David Strathairn, he came over quite cuddly until episode two, broadcast on Tuesday. Then, he was not just suborning Alex into laundering money for him, but was also revealed as the kingpin of a deeply unpleasant sex trafficking operation.

    One of his henchmen is Joseph, played by the Israeli actor Oshri Cohen, last seen discarding every stitch of clothing in the Israeli TV comedy Milk and Honey. Also well known in Israel is actress Yuval Scharf as Tanya, Kleiman’s cold-blooded procuress.

    Concern has been expressed that McMafia paints Israel and Jews in a negative light.

    Now, many of those who made money in the heady days of perestroika were Jews, and many of them fled Russia rather than face trumped-up charges from a greedy government, some going to Israel, others to places like London. And not all of them were squeaky clean.

    I don’t suppose for a minute that McMafia will be a black-and-white story. But we might want to accept that for the purposes of dramatic licence, making some of the characters Jewish gives a largely uncaring audience something familiar to grasp.

    Glenny is executive producer on the show and describes himself as “three-quarters Anglo-Celtic and a quarter Jewish”, and my guess is that he knows whereof he speaks. So, let’s see how things pan out and not rush hastily to judgment.

    Meanwhile, the glossy-but-grim series ricochets dizzyingly from location to location. In episode two alone we zipped from Mumbai to the Cayman Islands, back to Mumbai, then to Dubai, Sinai, Prague, the Negev, Tel Aviv, and London. You have to pay attention, otherwise you could lose the plot — though there doesn’t seem to be too much of that so far.

    I have high hopes that next week Alex might decide to buy a Tel Aviv nightclub and, searching for pole dancers with which to staff it, learn of Semiyon Kleiman’s readily available pool of young Russian women. That would be fun. Not.

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