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Posted Wednesday, January 20, 1999

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The Not So Independent
London, January 17, 1999

Television to write Fagin's Jewishness out of script

by Nicholas Hellen,
Media Correspondent

FAGIN, the stock Jewish villain of English literature, is to be cleansed of "racial stereotyping" for a high-profile adaptation of Oliver Twist on television.

Alan Bleasdale, the playwright best known for Boys from the Blackstuff and GBH, has reinterpreted Fagin in a £6m ITV series, removing his long hooked nose, his matted hair and references to his Jewishness. [...]

WE regret that by letter dated Tuesday, December 12, 2000 a Ms. Louise Hayman, the head of legal services at The Independent newspaper, requested that this article be removed from this website. We have adjusted the masthead accordingly.

January 18, 1999

In the latest Twist, villainous Fagin loses his racial identity

Dickens of a controversy

FAGIN, the strangely compelling leader of a criminal academy in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist is, in the author's words: "a shrivelled Jew, whose villainous and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair."

A forthcoming British adaptation of the novel has promised to tone down the character's Jewishness, a move that has outraged some literary commentators, who regard the gesture toward political correctness as a distortion of a classic text. Actor Robert Lindsay is to play Fagin in the new Independent Television (ITV) production to be filmed later this year; the script is by British playwright Alan Bleasdale.

According to a report in London's The Sunday Times, Bleasdale thinks: "Dickens was speaking in the language of his time, and to our ears some of it is profoundly unpleasant. If I thought he was genuinely anti-Semitic I could not have gone on." The newspaper reports that Bleasdale believes Dickens toned down references to Fagin's race in revised editions of the novel, first published in 1839. Mrs. Davis, the wife of a Jewish banker involved in property dealings with the author, persuaded Dickens to reconsider his pen-portrait of Fagin and make a donation to a Jewish charity as an act of atonement. The author is thought to have based Fagin on his contemporary Ikey Solomon, an infamous dealer in stolen goods.

The character's appearance was set in the public's imagination for once and for all through the pictures by Dockens' most famous illustrator, George Cruikshank. Stage and screen portrayals of Fagin have frequently aroused hostility and accusations of anti-Semitism. Just three years after the horrors of the Second World War, Alec Guinness' performance in David Lean's 1948 film of the novel led to violent protest in Germany. Censors in other parts of the world were reluctant to approve release.

Even Ron Moody's avuncular Fagin in the film of Lionel Bart's musical Oliver! caused some offence. However, the latest attempt to circumvent problems by avoiding racial caricature has not met with univeral approval. Quoted in The Sunday Times, Dr. David Parker of the Dickens House Museum said: "This softening of Fagin is down to political correctness. Literary stereotypes, however objectionable, should not be lightly cast aside."

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