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Laurence Marks & Maurice Gran, Writers

June 24, 2019
by the gentle author

On the afternoon of Sunday July 7th, Laurence Marks & Maurice Gran – celebrated television dramatists whose work has entertained the nation for the past four decades – will be speaking at Sandys Row Synagogue in Spitalfields, discussing their relationship with the East End.

This side of town has proved a source of inspiration for many of their most popular works, including Birds of a Feather, Frieda & Erich Gottlieb, Shine On Harvey Moon and their films Mosley and Wall of Silence.

It promises to be an enthralling evening of storytelling by two born raconteurs in one of London’s most beautiful synagogues. As a preview, I was granted the privilege of an audience with the genial duo who talked to me about their East End roots.

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Laurence Marks & Maurice Gran

Maurice Gran - For me, the East End is a place of kinship. My family was a very large family but now it is quite a small family, because so many people have died and all those aunts and uncles in the thirties did not have many children. My father, Mark, always believed that family was all you needed, he did not trust friends – certainly not friends who were not Jewish.

My parents, like most Jewish people who came into this country in the early twentieth century, lived in the East End and I think they migrated to Finsbury Park in the thirties. Debbie, my mother’s family lived in Sydney St and I was told that journalists came to ask if they would let them up on the roof to watch the siege in 1911. When the journalists left, the family found a guinea on the table which was as much as a month’s rent.

My parents relationship to the East End was quite conflicted. They moved out in stages, first to Stamford Hill and then to Finsbury Park. In the late thirties, Auntie Sadie, my mother’s youngest sister, she lived with her husband in a couple of rooms in Mile End, very near to where they were building the new Odeon. One day there was a rap on the door and there was a burly foreman standing there in a leather jerkin and a collar and tie. He said, ‘What are you doing here? All these houses are coming down to make way for the Odeon.’ She said, ‘Well, no-one told me,’ and he replied, ‘If you are not out by teatime, there will be a wrecking ball coming through your front parlour.’ She said, ‘We can’t move at the drop of a hat.’

Someone came round and gave her some money to bugger off there and then. Ten pounds, let’s guess. So she got on the 106 bus and sat on the top deck looking out the window all the way from Hackney to Finsbury Park to see where she could move to. When the bus was nearly at the terminus, she thought, ‘Well, this looks alright.’ She got off the bus, went into the first estate agent and said, ‘I need to rent somewhere today.’ My parents subsequently took over and eventually bought the house she rented, which was where I grew up.

Sadie found the house by lunchtime and spent the afternoon buying a bed and some other bits of furniture with the fiver she had left over. At the end of the day, she waited outside the sweatshop where her husband worked and told him, ‘We don’t live in Mile End anymore, we live in Finsbury Park.’

My father came over from Russia in 1910 and went to the Jews Free School in Spitalfields. He was there for a couple of years, I have got a certificate somewhere. He had nice handwriting and could do his sums on the back of an envelope.

My parents were at the Battle of Cable St, yet my father was not a courageous man. My father and my sister were on a trolley bus once, and some blackshirts got on and my father and his sister jumped off and ran for their lives. I do not know if they needed to run for their lives but that was the shadow it cast.

By the time I was growing up, the East End was a place for occasional visits to Petticoat Lane – which was always a big deal – and very occasional salt beef sandwiches at Blooms, if we were feeling really flush which was not very frequently.

They managed to kill Yiddish as a spoken language in a generation, it was a secret language for me. We never learnt it, it was the language for ‘not in front of the kinder.’ I do not think this was unique to my family, that whole generation did not want us to speak Yiddish even if they used it to have conversations in front of us.

The war was such a massive discontinuity. Before the war was the Shteitel in the East End and after the war was looking forward. They never went to Israel when my father was alive, but my mother went after he died. That was very big thing, the existence of the state of Israel and every Jewish household had a Jewish National Fund collecting tin on the kitchen table which all the spare change went into. I would steal most things but I never thought about robbing that, because I would have died.

My father and my wealthy uncle had sponsored a charity bed in their dead brother’s name in a hospital in the East End. When I was about seventeen, I remember being dragged down to see this bed. I thought, ‘Why are we going on this long journey to see a bed?’

The real old East End I never knew that well. If you put me down there, I would be lost looking for Aldgate East station or Gardiner’s Corner.

Laurence Marks - My uncle said that of you were able to make it beyond Gardiner’s Corner, then you were able to make it to the West End.

Lily, my mother did not come from the East End, she came to the East End. Bernard, my father was born in a flat above a shop in the Mile End Rd and his family lived in that area their entire lives. In 1928, my mother came to London from Cardiff with a chaperone, on a trip organised by the Board of Jewish Deputies, to be show around the Jewish East End. She was taken to the Brady Club where my father was a member. He also played cricket and football for the Peoples Palace. He was a fine cricketer.

My mother and father met at the club and they corresponded through 1928 and 1929. My father’s family were very different to my mother’s, so she was slumming it in many ways but she clearly loved him and his family. They were a family with five children living in two rooms and my grandfather was a bootmaker who worked from home, cutting leather on the kitchen table.

When her father in Cardiff met my father and approved of him, he decided to visit London to see my father’s family in Mile End. He walked into abject poverty. He had never gone up three flights of stairs to two small rooms in which seven people lived. I do not know if he ever said to my mother, ‘Are you sure you know what you are doing?’ but he might well have done. The love must have been very strong. I think it disappeared in about 1940.

Nevertheless, my father courted my mother and they married in Cardiff in 1931. Before the wedding, she had decided to leave Cardiff and come and live in this overcrowded two bedroom flat in Mile End, when she had been brought up in a very nice house in Cardiff. I think she wanted to escape the Jewish circle in Cardiff where her father was the Rabbi and everyone knew everyone.

When they got married, they found a basement flat in King Edward Rd near Columbia Rd. She suddenly realised what poverty was like because he could not get work as furrier. It was a seasonal job. By 1935, they had two child but they could not afford to feed them or themselves, but fortunately grandparents were living nearby who used to fed them every Friday and Saturday. Her life was really horrible, but the man who owned the house was a Hungarian chef and he taught her how to cook. She became a very good cook, domestically.

Eventually, my father decided that work was almost impossible to get and was advised to join the police. It was regular job with regular wages and their life became stable. He was a policeman all through the war when the bombing was heavy and missed death narrowly on at least two occasions. He often spoke about the blitz.

I never lived in the East End and was not schooled there. In the fifties, my father still had lots of relatives there so we would visit them and I remember him taking me to the salt beef bars in Petticoat Lane. One had a large oak beer barrel outside full of pickled cucumbers. The smell of those cucumbers and the salt beef was a big treat for us. He would buy a salt beef sandwich and share it with me. So I knew the East End through relatives of his family and going there most Sundays. He had an aunt who lived near Wentworth St and I would accompany him. My mother never went.

Years later, I met Sue, a girl who lived in Duckett St, Stepney Green, and we got married in Nelson St Synagogue on a very wet Sunday afternoon in February 1972. She was very much an East End girl, so I got to know the East End during the time her parents and relatives were alive. Her family never moved further than two or three streets in their entire lives. They were not typical East End though because her brother went to Cambridge and it was on the front page of the East London Advertiser, ‘Stepney Boy Accepted at Cambridge.’

There was this cloud of the Holocaust hanging over the East End after the war.

In the sixties, my parents took a coach tour to see Europe but when they reached Germany and Austria, my mother would not get off the bus. She slept on the bus. My second wife was German and I do not know quite what my mother would have said about that. I do not know if it would have been possible while she was alive.

I was in Leeds filming once and I rang my mother’s brother to let him know I was there. He said, ‘You must come for Friday night supper,’ which was big deal in his house. I said, ‘The problem is I am with my new ladyfriend. Have you heard I have separate from Sue?’ ‘Then you must bring her to Friday night dinner,’ he insisted. ‘There is a problem, something you ought to know, ‘ I told him. He asked ‘What is it?’ I said, ‘She’s not Jewish.’ There was a pause and he said, ‘Bring her anyway.’ I said, ‘And there’s something else you ought to know, she’s German.’ He said, ‘You bring her.’ So I took her there and he said he had a lovely night because he could talk Yiddish with my German girlfriend. There was this bond. It really meant a great deal to him.’

My last remaining relative in the East End died a few weeks ago. He was ninety-nine, three months off a hundred. He lived off Commercial Rd with my wife’s mother, they used to take in a lot of people from abroad who arrived at the docks and walked down the road with nowhere to go. They took in young people to give them a Jewish home.

Maurice’s mother Debbie is in the middle with his Aunt Sadie on the left and Aunt Debbie in the right, taken at Maurice’s sister Celia’s wedding in 1962

Passport photo of Maurice’s maternal grandfather Morris Cohen from the late thirties

Maurice’s father Mark stands on the right with his brother Hymie on the left and Hymie’s daughter Naomi, c. 1936

Laurence’s parents, Bernard Marks and Lily Goldberg in the twenties

Bernard and Lily in the twenties

Bernard & Lily Marks in the thirties

Click here for tickets for Laurence Marks & Maurice Gran at Sandys Row Synagogue

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At Sandys Row Synagogue

4 Responses leave one →
  1. June 24, 2019

    Terrific stories to listen to. I wish I could be there.

    Re Maurice’s parents being at the Battle of Cable St, what an amazing and pivotal moment in British history. Mind you, if some blackshirts got on a tram I was on, . I too would run for my life!

  2. Helen Breen permalink
    June 24, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a great story about Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran. I am sure they will provide an excellent program.

    Loved the pic of Maurice’s mom with her two sisters. They look like a happy family. Also “Laurence’s parents, Bernard Marks and Lily Goldberg in the twenties” reminds me of the many photos my folks had taken at local beaches in those days– fully dressed in their Sunday best while sitting in the sand.

  3. Eric Forward permalink
    June 24, 2019

    Another great post with fantastic photos. Although not directly brought up in the East End it runs through so much of their work, it just reaffirms to me what a special place the East End is. I’ve booked a ticket and look forward to seeing these quite literal entertainment legends talk.

  4. Brigitte Marks permalink
    July 3, 2019

    To avoid any confusion, Laurence’s wife Brigitte is still German and looking forward to coming along on Sunday.

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