Howard Jacobson: Jews on Coronation Street? No thanks

There’s nothing to stop them having a bunch of Hassidim propping up the barat the Rovers Return
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The Independent Online

Let me see if I understand the arguments correctly. Midsomer Murders is a realistic portrayal of English village life, and because English villages don't have black people living in them it would compromise verisimilitude to have black people in the programme. The contrary view being – correct me if I'm wrong – that a) English villages do have black people living in them, and b) even if they didn't, Midsomer Murders is so hopelessly improbable (how many murders can one sleepy English county support?) that a black face here and there would hardly affect its plausibility.

I don't watch programmes of this sort myself. Show me a police drama and I want to go out and commit a crime. It's intellectual laziness on the part of programme-makers to go on producing murder mysteries, and it's intellectual laziness on the part of viewers to go on watching them. If there's nothing better on telly, read a book. Preferably not a murder mystery. Reader, you don't need me to tell you that almost anything is more interesting than the mind of a detective. Whether Midsomer Murders is tosh I am unable to say; but it belongs to a tosh genre – in fact two tosh genres: cops and country ways – and I therefore feel secure in assuming that it is tosh itself. My apologies if it isn't, but only someone who watches it can tell me with authority that I am wrong, and why would I trust anyone who watches tosh?

This being the case, who cares who's in it? It mistakes the nature and function of drama, even bad drama, to suppose it is obliged to even-handed representation. We rarely see philosophers or literary critics or sociologists in television drama; indeed we rarely see characters who would know what a philosopher does; when we see teachers they are indistinguishable from their pupils; when we see politicians they are fools, and when we see scientists they are up to no good. Television rubs the itch of the unemployed proletariat or the inanely idle middle class, and the rest can go hang. You can fault that on aesthetic grounds – the seam is overmined – but politically there's no case to answer. Drama can do what it wants. The mistake is to suppose it's a mirror of our culture. So why hit upon black people as the only ones missing out when the truth is that we all are unless we happen to be a nurse or a detective?

Next, someone will be proposing quotas. So many black or brown faces per 1,000 acres of location multiplied by so many black or brown faces per 10 pages of script divided by so many black or brown faces per 100,000 people watching who aren't themselves black or brown. And when we've finished ethnically engineering plays about rustic life we can start with the rustics themselves.

I lived for 12 years in a village in the West Country. It was only when a black family turned up to walk the cliffs one warm July afternoon that I realised theirs were the first black faces I'd seen there in a decade. Was it racist of me not to have noticed their absence? I'm not even sure it was racist of the villagers to come out and look. It would have been the same had we appeared out of the blue in the middle of China. That which we haven't seen before makes us curious, and there's nothing wrong with curiosity so long as it remembers its manners.

To the question "How come no black people were living in the village?" there are a host of answers – some economic, some to do with the perpetuation of old ways, some to do with the opportunities, ambitions and preferences of black people themselves – but most of them innocuous. Which is not to say that prejudice – whether virulent or merely unknowing and perfunctory – was entirely absent from the hearts of locals. As the only Jew in the village, I encountered a bit of it. I ticked one local businessman off for referring to the new Jag he'd just bought himself as a "Jew's canoe", and then regretted it when I saw how distressed he was to think he had distressed me. Forgive them, Lord, they know not what they do. Signing books in Wells once I was complimented by the aromatic wife of some sort of Trollopian prelate. "Do you mind if I tell you you have a fine face?" she asked me sweetly. I gave her my better profile and smiled. "We have an old Jew in our village with a face just like yours," she went on. To which my unvoiced response was not "Why is there only one?" but "How come there are that many?".

If we're going to play quotas, then Jews have more to complain of than most. Why are there no Jews in Coronation Street, for example? That Jews would be unlikely to live in a street of people whose only idea of a good time is going to the pub and getting wasted, I concede. But they could make fleeting guest appearances. There are, for example, many Jewish taxi drivers in Manchester, so there's no reason why they shouldn't be seen dropping off at the Street. And anyway, as with Midsomer Murders so with Coronation Street, what's truth got to do with it? Where's the truth in having a fatal fire or explosion once a month and a wedding in every episode in which one of the participants runs weeping from the church? If the producers believe they can make such events feasible, then there's nothing to stop them having a bunch of Hassidim propping up the bar at the Rovers Return.

If I am not mistaken, there were Jews in Coronation Street once, though as I recall they were all in the shmatte business and made shmatte business noises and did shmatte business things with their hands. So isn't it better – if those are the only Jews the writers of Coronation Street can come up with – that they don't come up with any at all?

My own position on seeing Jews in television soaps and serials is that it doesn't matter if I don't, and by preference I would rather not. I don't think our absence from these lower forms of representation works tellingly against us. And since Jews, as everybody knows, control the media, one must assume that it's part of the Jewish media-mafia conspiracy to keep Jews off the screen rather than put Jews on it.

Be pleased, I say to those who can't find themselves on telly. There is no better place not to be seen.