Ridley Road review – fascist thriller resonates in our current dark age | TV & radio
A Sunny bedroom in a Kent country house, 1962. An adorable moppet helps a young blonde woman make the bed. They are joined by the smart man of the house. They gather in front of the window and give a Nazi salute, smiling.
So begins Ridley Road (BBC One), Sarah Solemani’s four-part adaptation of Jo Bloom’s 2014 novel of the same name. It’s a startling opening, especially since the story that is going to unfold, we are told, is inspired by real facts.
The real part is the rise of neo-fascism in England in the 1960s, when the dismal rags of Oswald Mosley’s labor movement, and the version of the British National Party that would become the National Front, were complemented by the national movement. -socialist led by a man called Colin Jordan. It is he – played by Rory Kinnear – that we see making the seat in the sun.
The drama is named after the road that housed the headquarters of the coalition of Jewish men known as Group 62 which carried out direct militant action against the NSM in particular. Their most famous confrontation took place in Trafalgar Square in 1962, when Jordan – protected by free speech law – staged an anti-Semitic rally where a riot broke out between participants and protesters.
Ridley Road takes place from the perspective of the blonde woman we see in the opening, the fictional Vivien Epstein. Epstein (Agnes O’Casey, giving no sign that this is her first TV role) leaves her loving but claustrophobic home in Manchester, where she lives with her parents, to swing around London in search of ex-boyfriend Jack Morris (Tom Varey).
It turns out Morris is integrated into the NSM as a spy for a secret group of Jewish anti-fascist activists led by Epstein’s uncle Soly (Eddie Marsan). After participating in an NSM arson against a yeshiva in which a student is killed, Morris disappears, leading Epstein to work his way into Colin Jordan’s good graces to find out if Morris has been unmasked, injured or killed.
Injured only! From there, it’s just one step away for Epstein to fit in and work with Jack to avoid further NSM attacks (including plans to disrupt the yeshiva boy’s funeral – there’s a heartbreaking photo of a Jewish man having to hide behind the headstone of the grave he is visiting when they are directed to the wrong cemetery). The group is gathering intelligence on Jordan’s plans and the “paramilitary force” he drags into the country house loaned to him by a sympathetic aristocrat.
While the bulk of the story is amateur espionage and Epstein’s growing involvement in the Jordanian world, it’s in the quieter, more domestic moments that the drama is most compelling. The ghostly presence of the Epsteins’ relative, Roza (Julia Krynke), a Holocaust survivor ravaged by grief and suffering, eats away at the conscience of Vivien’s mother, Liza (Samantha Spiro, who excels in nervous characters, inarticulate and well deployed here). Not realizing how endangered they were, she denied Roza’s family a place to stay when they were fleeing the Nazis, and her guilt filled the house as it must have been with so many others.
Elsewhere, the fertile ground where the seeds of anti-Semitism and other sectarianism flourish is well mentioned. We see the solace that Epstein’s old London landlady, Nettie (Rita Tushingham), finds in local community leader Gary Burns (Nigel Betts), and her explanation of why the world is changing so rapidly around ‘she. You will never guess who is to blame.
Parts of London, however, have a much wider brush feel. The romance element – with a potential rival in the form of Stevie (Gabriel Akuwudike), who currently has Vivien as a secret fascist but, we suspect, will make the scales fall from his eyes before the credits of the third episode – feels awkward and unconvincing. The direction seems oddly stilted and the dialogue fragile, the script is never quite first class. The plays that take place in the barber shop where Vivien gets a job are almost cartoonish, and the relentless salt of the earth of anyone born in the East End gets pretty squeaky.
Still, while you might wish it featured a bit more complexity and artistic sophistication, it’s drama with resonance. He has the right story to tell – alas – in our present dark age.