Life & Culture

Fagin's back - the villain Charles Dickens tried to cancel

Controversy has raged over Jewish villain Fagin ever since Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist. As the BBC unveils a new prequel, Nicole Lampert traces the character’s troubling history


In 1863 a Jewish mother-of-ten called Eliza Davis wrote to berate, in the most charm-mixed-with-chutzpah of ways, the author Charles Dickens about his character Fagin in Oliver Twist.

Eliza had little more than a passing acquaintance with the novelist; she and her husband had bought his London home three years earlier. She wrote to him to request some funds for a Jewish home for convalescents adding that perhaps a donation could ameliorate some of the wrongs he had done.

“Charles Dickens, the large-hearted, whose works plead so eloquently and so nobly for the oppressed of his country… has encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew,” she wrote. “Fagin, I fear, admits only of one interpretation but while Charles Dickens lives, the author can justify himself or atone for a great wrong.”

Dickens was clearly shocked at this admonishment, even though this newspaper had questioned, nearly a decade earlier, why “Jews alone should be excluded from the sympathising heart of this great author and powerful friend of the oppressed”. The biggest complaint was over the book Oliver Twist in which wily, miserly, ugly, Fagin, “a very shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair” is referred to as “the Jew” hundreds of times.

Dickens’s first response was familiar to all of those who have come across people who try and tell Jewish people what antisemitism is; he “goysplained” to her. “I must take leave to say that if there be any general feeling on the part of the intelligent Jewish people that I have done them what you describe as ‘a great wrong’ they are far less sensible, a far less just and a far less good temped people than I have always supposed them to be,” he insisted.

Eliza was having none of it. She insisted that in a story where there were good and bad Christians there was only one Jew; the dastardly Fagin. She also compared Dickens to his friend and rival Wilkie Collins who had a number of sympathetic Jewish characters in his books. Her words hit home.

The result was not only the saintly Jewish character of Riah in Dickens’s last novel, Our Mutual Friend, but the author desperately trying to edit the Jewish references out of the 1867 reprint of Oliver Twist. The book was, at that time, mid-print so starting with Chapter 39 he removed scores of references to Fagin as “the Jew”.

But by that point the antisemitic image of the miserly thief Fagin was already out in the world.

There have been more than 20 screen adaptations of the Fagin story. Perhaps the most controversial was the 1948 David Lean one, starring Alec Guinness as Fagin complete with a large prosthetic nose. This Fagin was unremittingly awful and, coming out just three years after the worst excesses of the Holocaust had been exposed, was unsurprisingly deemed incredibly insensitive.

The New York Board of Rabbis were invited to an early screening and deemed it a “vehicle of blatant antisemitism” and the opening was postponed. In Germany, in the British occupied sector of Berlin, there were protests, mainly from Holocaust survivors, at a cinema it was due to be screened at. Tensions grew so high that the film company withdrew the film’s release.

Perhaps the most famous version of the story is the musical Oliver! created by Jewish musician Lionel Bart. His Fagin has a humanity missing in so many other performances but there remained sensitivities — his nasal accent, his desperate love of his gold. In 2009 when Rowan Atkinson played Fagin in the West End, there was criticism that the show’s posters had refashioned the letter L from Oliver! into a long ill-shaped nose.

There are Jewish villains and we shouldn’t whitewash them — the question is what is the best way to do that without creating more hatred?

Now the BBC has produced a version of the story for children’s television, Dodger, which is an origins story about how the gang got together before the arrival of Oliver. It is perhaps not opportune timing for the BBC, reproducing a new version of one of the most antisemitic characters in literature when it is already caught up in an antisemitism row with our community over the Chanukah bus attack.

It also comes amid the “Jewface” debate over whether Jewish characters should only be played by Jews.

The series, which will be on CBeebies and iPlayer, has been written as a gentle comedy about life for the Artful Dodger and Fagin’s gang as they duck and dive through the London streets to survive.

Fagin is played by Christopher Eccleston, one of the country’s top actors, who took the role due to his friendship with its creators Rhys Thomas and Lucy Montgomery. Other stars include David Threlfall, Alex Kingston, Frances Barber, Samantha Spiro and Alexei Sayle. Teenager Billy Jenkins, who played Prince Charles in The Crown, is a revelation as Dodger.

Eccleston says he took the role partly because he loved Oliver! as a child. “Because of my council estate background, I always wanted to know what happened to Fagin and the kids and how they survived,” he says. “Through Fagin and the gang, they look at the reality of what it was like to be the underclass in Dickensian London.”

This Fagin is, he says, “a reinvention of an iconic character”. He adds: “Fagin is an icon of world literature so people and actors are continually revisiting the character. Our Fagin is serious but also comedic. There’s a balance between drama and comedy. He’s tragic, which we hint at, which is why he invests emotionally. He parents the kids but acts with tough love — he’s cruel but fair. The question is, does he love those children or is he exploiting them?” Like much of today’s television output, effort has been made to create an “inclusive” cast of different races who make up the gang.

And perhaps for the first time, Fagin is given a back story which humanises him; he lost a wife and children tragically, which is why he feels paternal towards the street kids he sort of rescues from the gutter — before enticing them into a life of crime. According to the BBC, “For the role of Fagin, we wanted to move away from the original positioning of the character as depicted in Oliver Twist.

“Producers conducted extensive research to help create a complex, enigmatic and quick-tempered character with a tragic past. We hope that our interpretation of Fagin will resonate with today’s audiences.”

But Jewish sensitivities may be raised by the fact that he wears a yarmulke signalling his religion — despite the fact that he is clearly an irreligious man. And while the back story of a real Fagin living in the East End could have involved a story of immigration and escape from antisemitism, as it did for so many Jews at that time, that is not touched.

Eccleston, aware of the sensitivities around Fagin, did make an effort to get the flavour of the man right. He read David Baddiel’s Jews Don’t Count and watched Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews.

What this new Oliver adaptation (albeit one without Oliver) does once again, however, is bring up the question of how sensitive people in the arts are to Jewish sensibilities when it comes to drama. There are some standout stories; a couple of weeks ago I interviewed Call the Midwife’s creator Heidi Thomas for this newspaper about a Holocaust storyline in the show.

Not only did that episode have a Jewish writer, but there was also a synagogue elder on the set and all the Jewish characters were played by Jews. That has to be the five-star standard in Jewish storytelling, which not everyone has to adhere to.

Author Karen McCombie, who has written a children’s book with a similar theme to Dodger called Fagin’s Girl, says she deliberately took out the ethnicity of Fagin in her own work to avoid the messiness. “I didn’t want to get involved in caricatures or be offensive,” she says.

“In the book I really wanted to concentrate on the idea of child poverty and how adults may prey on that. For me the more important aspect was to have an adult who was a criminal.
“I love the idea of opening up stories in the present day, and of seeing where Fagin’s desperation comes from, but I think it would only be useful to have his ethnicity in there if it was done in an inclusive and empathetic way.”

As to whether this new BBC adaptation will set a new high in terms of depictions of Fagin, or be deemed as insensitive as previous ones, Jewish viewers will have to, as it were, review the situation when they see it.

Dodger is available on CBBC from February 6, and on iPlayer
Fagin’s Girl is published by Barrington Stoke on March 3

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