The long-lost Hitler sitcom that caused outrage

When her co-star Gareth Marks first got a call about the show, producers wanted him for Hitler, but, Jewish as he is also, he pushed inst...

When her co-star Gareth Marks first got a call about the show, producers wanted him for Hitler, but, Jewish as he is also, he pushed instead for the part of Arny Goldenstein. He went to his dad, the late, celebrated comedy actor Alfred Marks, for advice. “He’s a good judge of things, and I said, ‘Listen, is this going too far?’ He convinced me that I was doing the right thing, I took his word, and I’m glad I did.” Gruber also looked to her family as a testing point for how it might be received: “I’m not remotely religious but I come from a fairly observant family and my father came to the filming, and he thought it was one of the funniest things he’d ever seen.”

Both Gruber and Marks had appeared in controversial shows prior to this, though on stage: Marks played King Herod in Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice’s musical Jesus Christ Superstar in the 1980 UK tour (“people picketed the show outside, saying: ‘This is terrible! How dare you make Jesus into a musical!’”) while in 1987 Gruber starred in Perdition, a play directed by filmmaker Ken Loach at the Royal Court Theatre which was cancelled 36 hours before curtain up amid protests alleging it was anti-Semitic and could incite racial hatred.

“Because of this experience, I was sensitive about doing anything that was offensive or upsetting,” Gruber says. “I didn’t think Heil Honey was either – I thought it was so funny. When I was reading through the scripts for the other episodes that Geoff had written, I couldn’t get through them, I had tears pouring down my cheeks. I was of the opinion – and still am now – that within reason, people should take risks. If it’s funny, if it works, it’s OK.”

What happened behind the scenes

Once filming was underway in May 1990, the media scrutiny started. “The Jewish Chronicle called me up and they asked me for an interview,” Marks says. “They were up in arms about it, but I said, ‘You haven’t seen it yet as it hasn’t been screened. We’re not praising Hitler, we’re ridiculing him’. There was a little bit of fallout from that article, but the rest of it we were shielded from.”

When the pilot screened on BSB’s Galaxy channel on 30 September 1990, it was to a limited audience of “probably a few thousand people”, says Atkinson. Most of the outcry came from the announcement of the show earlier in the year, rather than from people who actually watched it when it aired. However, news of its controversial theme made it over to the US: after viewing the pilot, the LA Times asked: “Is this dangerous?” 

Subsequently, the show was shaken up, with the actress playing Eva Braun, Denica Fairman, replaced for the full series by Maria Friedman and a new American showrunner/writer brought in to oversee Atkinson and amend his script.

“The pilot and the series were two different things,” says Gruber, of the other seven episodes that were filmed, but never aired. “By the time it came to do the series they were very nervous about it. We had an episode of Hitler building shelves, for instance. The series was much safer and they played down the Jewish couple – I think the new showrunner would have been happy if they weren’t in it at all.”

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Newsrust: The long-lost Hitler sitcom that caused outrage
The long-lost Hitler sitcom that caused outrage
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