TELEVISION / Between us and them and you and yours

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The Independent Culture
THE NEW credits for Screen One (Sunday, BBC1) are a little masterpiece of wishful thinking: a stone is thrown through a television screen and as it hits the ground we see that it has a note tied round it. The note unwraps itself with crinkly animation and the stone splits in half to reveal the titles and a seam of gold. You get the point of this trite little icon - drama that is shattering but meaningful, powerful but inwardly rich.

It was a singularly appropriate image for 'Wall of Silence', a script by the comedy writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, partly because it was a film loaded with wishful thinking itself but also because the Hasidic community, around which the plot was based, has reacted like someone who's just had a brick land on the coffee-table. Putting myself in the shoes of a Hasidic Jew (not something that I'm very good at, I confess), I have to say that I would share their sense of grievance.

It has to be said that Hasidic Jews aren't big on television at the best of times. In a recent documentary one Hasid described it as 'the spiritual equivalent of having a sewer running through your living room'. So they would probably have disapproved of the bits I liked about 'Wall of Silence', which began as a brisk and funny thriller, alert to the little whirlpools of ignorance and prejudice which form when the stream of modern life hits a rock like the Hasidic community.

Someone has killed a Hasid, dumped him in the boot of the car and dropped it in the local canal. 'Why would anyone kill one of your curly-wurlies?' a colleague asks Bill Paterson's sympathetic community policeman, a line that neatly captures the amused detachment of the investigating officers. There is a swastika on the car bonnet and the dead man has been stabbed in the eyes (a traditional punishment for 'moysers' or traitors, we are told), so suspicion is divided between the local fascists and the Hasidim themselves. Occasionally the script was a little heavy handed with its ironies ('I hate to say it but they all look the same to me,' says a black women during door to door inquiries about the murder) but it looked like we were going to get a thoughtful account of how easily paranoia can grow in the soil of mutual mistrust.

That was before the Russian Spetnatz Ninja Hasids appeared on the scene (animation rights available from Gran and Marks). They show their hand by dealing out a bit of chop-socky to a large gang of anti-Semitic thugs outside the synagogue but they aren't the only ones living a double-life. Ephraim Lipshitz, apparently an American printer looking for a nice girl to marry, turns out to be a Mossad double-agent investigating anti-Zionist movements amongst the Hasidim, and Shmuel Singer, dispenser of sage wisecracks and pillar of the community, turns out to have been beating his wife black and blue and killing to cover it up.

In other words we have a drama which combines global Jewish conspiracy, ancient rituals of blood-letting and a hypocritical outward show of religious devotion. Sound familiar at all? Against accusations of anti-Semitism Gran, Marks and Warren Mitchell (who plays Singer) have rather ingenuously cited their own Jewishness and protested that the film depicts the close-knit, family values of the community. This is simply specious - of the few Hasidim with more than a walk-on part, one is a murderous wife-beater, one is in prison for VAT fraud, one has a bigamous relationship with a non-Jewish woman and one has lost money he doesn't have on the stock market. What family do the writers have in mind? The Mansons?

Nor do you have to believe that any of those involved are anti-Semitic to suspect that the writers' Jewishness, far from being an alibi for the offence, is actually the motive. In a grotesquely unconvincing scene at the end of the film the girl introduced to Ephraim by the matchmaker abandons family and beliefs to reunite with him joyously at the El Al check-in. She got away from them, you were meant to think, whatever your religion.