Obituary: Wolf Mankowitz

THE JEWISH community of London's East End has produced an amazing variety of talent. Some have made their careers in the commercial and financial worlds, while the very significant contributors to the arts have tended to be many-faceted. Joan Littlewood, Steven Berkoff and Mark Anthony Turnage are just a few of the names that spring to mind, but even among such exceptional people, Wolf Mankowitz stands out as a strong and individual voice.

When London first became aware of him as a writer in the early 1950s, he had already made a name for himself as a dealer and authority on antique porcelain, especially Wedgwood. His experience came from working in street markets, then in his own lock-up shop, a practical schooling that he put to good account, becoming both a scholar and (with R.G. Haggar) the editor of the Concise Encyclopaedia of English Pottery and Porcelain (1957). In 1953 he had published his definitive book, The Portland Vase and the Wedgwood Copies, which paid much attention to the copies of that famous Greek antiquity made by Josiah Wedgwood.

Mankowitz's special talent was to make an abstruse and specialised subject read like a detective story, and The Portland Vase sold well. Wedgwood, even in mass-produced modern copies, remained fashionable and Mankowitz cashed in by opening a glittering new shop in the Piccadilly Arcade in London.

At the same time he was using his former experiences, both as a street trader and as a bright young boy with an observant eye - not least for the main chance - to write short novels, which were published by Andre Deutsch; these became very successful. Make Me An Offer (about an antique dealer in search of the Portland Vase) appeared in 1952 and A Kid For Two Farthings a year later. They were both filmed in 1954, directed by Cyril Frankel and Carol Reed respectively.

Next Mankowitz began to write for the theatre and scored a considerable success with The Bespoke Overcoat (1953), in which David Kossoff played Morry, at the Arts Theatre in London, a role he repeated many times. Nobody appeared to notice at the time that the play was an update of a Gogol short story. In 1958 he wrote a musical, Expresso Bongo, based on the career of Tommy Steele, which was filmed the following year.

He followed it with a great outpouring of novels, short stories, plays, musicals and film scripts (including The Millionairess in 1960 and the James Bond film Casino Royale in 1967), some of which were successful with the public. With his ebullient self-confident personality he was always able to convince producers, but in spite of the volume of work, by the mid-Sixties his name had lost much of its lustre. Most of his new plays, especially the larger-scale ones, did not stay long on the boards.

Exceptions were adaptations of French plays or other work done in collaboration, such as the film The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961), directed by Leslie Norman, which was based on Willis Hall's stage play. Others worth noting are the novels My Old Man's a Dustman (1956) and A Night With Casanova (1991), The Mendelman Fire and Other Stories (short stories, 1957), and his documentary on Yiddish cinema in the 1930s, Almonds and Raisins (1984). The influence of Yiddish life and lore is evident in much of his work.

Born in Bethnal Green in 1924, Mankowitz was educated at East Ham Grammar School and Downing College, Cambridge, where he read English and was tutored by F.R. Leavis. During the Second World War he served as a volunteer coal miner and in the Army.

In addition to fiction and drama, he wrote books about Dickens, whose observation of urban life was not dissimilar from his own (Dickens of London, 1976), Edgar Allen Poe (The Extraordinary Mr Poe, 1978), and some historical subjects. He published a small volume of poetry in 1971.

Visits to Central America inspired his work and in 1971 he became Honorary Consul to the Republic of Panama in Dublin, a post which gave him some amusement, but little revenue.

In the Seventies he retired to a comfortable house and small property on the south-west coast of Ireland to continue writing and to take advantage of the government's generosity to writers, who pay no tax. There he turned to art and began to make collages; some have been exhibited in Dublin and London.

In 1982, he took a post teaching theatre at the University of New Mexico as well as being Adjunct Professor of English there. He stayed until the late Eighties before moving back to Ireland.

Wolf Mankowitz was a man of many parts with a voracious appetite for knowledge, an outgoing personality, attracted to women, a good talker, with an underlying interest in philosophy which developed particularly during his illness from cancer in his last years. Much of his work shows an ironic sense of humour, an understanding of human motivation and weakness, and a compassion for those unable to rise from the underside of society.

The works that are likely to survive longest, and which are most often revived in small theatres by such enthusiastic character actors as Leonard Fenton, are the early plays, and The Irish Hebrew Lesson (1978), written about the Black and Tans, although the author had the IRA in mind.

His compulsion towards success marred work that with more attention and time would have been better, but he became stoical about that at the end. At his best he was a craftsman with an ability to communicate with his public in all mediums and to make the complex simple and interesting.

Cyril Wolf Mankowitz, writer: born London 7 November 1924; married 1944 Ann Seligmann (three sons, and one son deceased); died Durrus, Co Cork 20 May 1998.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
News
i100
News
Prince Harry is clearing enjoying the Commonwealth Games judging by this photo
people(a real one this time)
Sport
Lionel Messi looks on at the end of the final
football
Extras
indybest
News
Richard Norris in GQ
mediaGQ features photo shoot with man who underwent full face transplant
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on