An Introduction to the Arena at Jewish Book Week Series by Anthony Wall

There’s no question that Jewish artists have played a big part in the story of BBC TV’s Arena, the longest-running arts documentary series in the world with something of a reputation for originality. Out of around six hundred Arena films, sixty plus are on Jewish subjects. The Arena at Jewish Book Week series presents six of them.

There was certainly never any agenda to promote Jewish or any other particular culture within the Arena series. In fact there was never any particular agenda on Arena at all. I remember a freelance director asking Alan Yentob, then Series Editor, whether there was anything he should be looking to do to make sure the film he was about to make would properly fit the style of the series. Alan said, “Just make it really interesting”.

Maybe there’s a clue there to the question of how we came to make so many ‘Jewish’ films.  Anyway, we won’t be tackling the issue head on, Arena always preferred to take the side entrance rather than trying to beat down the heavy door at the front.  Anne Webber, JBW trustee and co-executive producer with me on this series, suggested taking six iconic Jewish artists who had been the subject of an Arena film. We chose Amy Winehouse; Art Spiegelman; Peter Sellers; Isaac Bashevis Singer; Linda McCartney and Mel Brooks.

Hopefully, revisiting these films with their very different, utterly distinctive individuals, we might arrive at some idea why ‘posh arts programme Arena’, as it was once described in The Sun, should be so drawn to Jewish art and life in their many different forms.

For Brooks and Singer, Jewishness is central, as it is in Art Spiegelman’s comic strip masterpiece Maus.  Linda McCartney, Amy Winehouse and Peter Sellers brought no ostensible Jewishness to their work at all. Yet Winehouse wore a Magen David on stage, and, unassuming herself, as an artist had a clear idea who she needed to be. She communicated pain and joy in her songs, drawing on the pain and joy in the black music she so admired. Sellers’s film of his mother, shot by himself, depicts a recognisably strong-minded woman with an unwavering influence on her son. While Linda McCartney had an unmistakeable laid back New York coolness and the confidence to commit herself to the then unfashionable causes of vegetarianism and animal rights.

The series opens with Alan Yentob’s classic Arena about Mel Brooks from 1981 I Thought I Was Taller: A short history of Mel Brooks.  How did it happen?  Alan loved Mel and his films, might Mel be up for a film?  The answer was yes.  Would he be up for a film that wasn’t just a chronological account of his career with bags of commentary – yes again.

The result is a freewheeling, non-linear film that provides Brooks with the space, nothing off limits, to present himself and his work in his own way and to give him a platform for his incomparable capacity to turn anything into something hilarious. And finally it led to a long continuing and deep friendship between Brooks and the younger man, as he was then.

Laugh out loud funny isn’t perhaps the quality first to be expected from a BBC arts documentary but laugh out loud funny is what Brooks is, that’s the essence of the portrait. Alan followed his own advice and just made something really interesting.

Anthony Wall
Series Film Curator
Arena (1978-2018)