Life & Culture

Wolf Mankowitz - the man who did everything


“A Renaissance man.”
“A sort of East End [James] Joyce.”
“A f*** ’em Jew.”

Three assessments of the prodigious playwright, producer, scholar, poet, journalist, screenwriter, TV panellist, artist and authority on Wedgwood china, Wolf Mankowitz. The first is by actor Richard Burton, with whom Mankowitz worked on Dr Faustus (with Elizabeth Taylor as Helen of Troy) and The Fifth Offensive, in which Burton played Marshall Tito. The second is by novelist Anthony Burgess; the third is writer Frederic Raphael’s description of a man assertively proud of his roots.

All of these are quoted in a new biography — The Worlds of Wolf Mankowitz by Anthony J Dunn — of a man who, born in poverty, went on to study English literature at Cambridge, produce a stream of writing from scholarly to streetwise, and — as the sub-title of Dunn’s book puts it — form a bridge “between elite and popular cultures in post-war Britain”.

Mankowitz, who died in 1998, was even suspected of being a Soviet spy. He certainly had communist leanings as a student at Cambridge and joined the local party, where he met his future wife, Ann Seligmann. Files released in 2010 show MI5 particularly concerned when Mankowitz helped set up a British delegation to the 1957 World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow and tried to recruit members of the Royal Court theatre cast of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.

It was not unusual for someone of Mankowitz’s background to be drawn to communism. Born Cyril Woolf (with two o’s) Mankowitz, in 1924, he grew up in Fashion Street, between Commercial Street and Brick Lane, in the heart of London’s Jewish East End. His parents were Russian Jews and their home was a two-room flat, with one cold-water tap and an outside lavatory.

'He was even suspected of being Soviet spy'

But communism was far from being the only magnet to attract the young Mankowitz. He loved the sights, sounds and smells of the local market, and sold stamps there in his youth. In commerce and communism, he found one of the contradictory links which, as Dunn’s book demonstrates, drove him throughout his life.

Mankowitz’s first major experience of starkly contrasting milieux came in 1943 when, almost uniquely for an East End Jewish boy at that time, he went up to Downing College, Cambridge, to study under the singularly demanding F R Leavis. Under Leavis, he learned the importance of literary texts, giving him a sensitivity to verbal power and standards which he retained even as he accomplished an output that stretched from academic criticism to popular entertainment.

Another factor that applied to all aspects of Mankowitz’s varied life and work was that there was normally “something Jewish” about it, whether deriving from his Russian heritage, his East End origins, or his support for Israel, galvanised by the Six-Day War of 1967. And support for Israel was not all that it inspired.

With Jewish Book Week 2013 almost upon us, it is interesting to recall Mankowitz’s words to a Jewish Book Week audience 35 years ago, when he declared that the restoration of the Western Wall had led him to “unpick the lock to a vast treasure, which is the Torah and everything that has come out of it”. An intriguing sentiment from a lifelong atheist and non-Zionist.

For many Jews of a certain age, the name of Wolf Mankowitz is most indelibly associated with the 1953 film, A Kid For Two Farthings, featuring the irresistibly Jewish actor, David Kossoff. This was a kind of shtetl tale, set in Petticoat Lane market, about a young boy who buys a pet goat. The animal has only one discernible horn and the boy is encouraged to believe that the it is a unicorn, blessed with magical powers.

The other Mankowitz film that strongly conveys the atmosphere of 1950s London is his satire on the popular music culture of the time, Expresso Bongo, starring one of his closest friends and fellow Jew, Laurence Harvey, who went on to enjoy a successful Hollywood career.

Mankowitz’s plays, The Bespoke Overcoat, and Make Me an Offer, were also set in a London Jewish ambience — and also filmed. But he ranged much more widely. Even in London, he had an antiques shop in Mayfair, where he also lived — and his other addresses included the Caribbean, Israel and Ireland.

His stage and film career saw him in the roles of producer, director and impresario but, above all, as writer, notably for the screen. He was James Bond’s movie midwife, having introduced Harry Saltzman to Cubby Broccoli. He contributed to the script of the first Bond film, Dr No — from which he insisted his name be removed from the credits — and the Bond spoof, Casino Royale, which made serious money (this time he consented to remaining credited). He considered the sci-fi epic, The Day The Earth Caught Fire, to be his best film script.

He did musicals, too, one of which, based on the life of the convicted murderer Dr Crippen, was rubbished by the doyen of theatre critics, Bernard Levin. In response, Mankowitz — described by Dunn as “a figure of formidable bulk and presence” — delivered a coffin to the much smaller and slighter Levin, with a note attached, which read: “Dear Bernie, this is your size, not mine. Signed, Wolfie”

Sadly, both Wolfie and Bernie are no more.

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