The day my Zionism died
Veteran actress Miriam Karlin tells Alex Kasriel about partying, cancer, and her problem with the Jewish state
Afee morning. But the elegant octogenarian with a keen sense of humour is still taking on film roles and insists that she intends to do so to the end of her days.
Even the fact that she has recently endured mouth cancer and suffers ongoing peripheral neuropathy (a condition affecting the nervous system, which she is convinced was caused by 56 years of anorexia) will not stand in her way, she says.
Karlin played Grandma Sadie in the 2003 British-Jewish comedy film Suzie Gold — a film which she happens not to have rated. More famously, she was Catlady in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, despite having a phobia of cats.
Her latest role is in the upcoming film drama Flashback of a Fool, starring James Bond star Daniel Craig, whom she never met during filming. The role did, however, allow her to visit South Africa for the first time.
“I have been asked to go to South Africa five times in the past, but always refused because of the apartheid,” she says. “Then, just when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, my health started failing and I thought I’d never get to go — I was very upset. But to be T THE age of 82, actress Miriam Karlin might be expected to have packed up her career and taken up full-time bridge and the odd seniors’ cof- offered this film out of the blue is just wonderful.”
Karlin, who trained at Rada, is best known for her role as a militant shop steward in the 1960s BBC sitcom The Rag Trade, who called a strike at the slightest whiff of unfair treatment of workers with the catchphrase: “Everybody out”.
The role to some extent reflected her own left-wing political views — she is an active member of actors’ union Equity.
Sitting in the living room of her Central London mansion-block flat where she lives alone (she never married or had children), she talks about her autobiography, Some Sort of Life, published this month, which includes candid details about her sex life, gambling, drugtaking and eating disorder.
“It’s not all down there,” she insists. “I’m 82 and I have been working since I was 19 — since I left Rada — I should think there’s 10 per cent of work in there. I don’t intend it to be anything like a CV. I think CV books are ghastly.”
In fact, the London-born actress had never intended to write a book at all. The exercise was mainly a distraction from her cancer treatment.
“What I’m embarrassed about is I’m not a writer,” she admits. “I can write pretty good letters, but I’m not a writer of books. This came about partly because I had mouth cancer and had three slices of tongue taken away. When my great friend Jan Sargent — who’s not only a brilliant director and worked with me in three plays but is also a trained psychoanalyst — heard about me having six-and-a-half weeks of chemotherapy, she said: ‘Mim, would it be a good idea if I came round every day with a tape recorder and we just recorded stuff?’
“We made a list of the sort of things I was interested in. There was nothing about friends or TV programmes, it was all to do with politics. It was a wonderful focal point for me; a most marvellous piece of therapy. Jan would be here with the tape recorder. Admittedly I talked a lot of bollocks. There was a lot of inarticulate stuff, but at least I did it.”
Karlin has always been an active Labour party supporter, but when Tony Blair came to power she renounced her membership.
“The most dreadful part of the Blair government is that he brought us in to the Iraq war. That is something for which I could never forgive him,” she says. Now that Gordon Brown is Prime Minister, she has signed up again.
Karlin also changed her mind about Israel. She used to call herself a “staunch Zionist”—– a tradition that ran in her family since her grandfather was at the first Zionist conference with Theodor Herzl in 1897.
“He came away so fired with enthusiasm that the only solution to the Jewish question was for us to have our own country,” she says. But she is now more comfortable speaking out for Jews for Justice for Palestinians.
“I think I was beginning to lose a bit of faith and the thing that finally finished me was when [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin was murdered by an ultra-Orthodox Jew,” she admits.
“It probably killed my Judaism and my Zionism both together in a way. I know that Rabin wanted to give back Gaza and the West Bank, and for an ultra-Orthodox Jew to murder him… If that had not happened, 9/11 wouldn’t have happened,” she claims.
“I would love to see Israel back as it was when there were no class distinctions. As soon as they got in to bed with apartheid South Africa it was very difficult to get out.”
Oddly, she is a good friend of the publicly Zionist Maureen Lipman — but refuses to discuss Israel with her.
After flirting with atheism, Karlin — who says that the only rabbi she liked was Lionel Blue — is a humanist. She says: “As I’m such a great joiner, I joined them. I feel much happier with this.”
But if she is a humanist, can she also belong to a group with “Jews” in its name? “I’m very conscious about being full of double standards,” she says. “I say one thing and do another. I’m a socialist and I’m a member of Bupa.” Some Sort of a Life is published by Oberon Books on November 23. To order a copy for the special price of £18 (rrp £19.99) with free UK p&p, call 020 7607 3654 and quote “JC”. Miriam Karlin talks about her career at the National Theatre, London SE1, on November 23 at 6pm. Tel: 020 7452 3000
Miriam Karlin: Rabin’s assassination “killed” her Judaism