The first episode of the BBC’s new drama, Ridley Road, comes with a shameless whiff of the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home”. It’s 1962 and in suburban Manchester, a young hairdresser called Vivien Epstein (Agnes O’Casey) is about to disappear to London in search of her on-off boyfriend, Jack Morris (Tom Varey). “I had to go,” reads the note she leaves for her parents, whose frantic worry at her departure is, we soon gather, mostly a front for their embarrassment about her running out on her incredibly boring fiancé, Jeremy. “His mother won’t look at me at shul,” wails Liza Epstein (Samantha Spiro), when her daughter finally calls from a phone box somewhere near Trafalgar Square.
Until this point, the viewer has assumed that Jack must be a bad lot; surely poor Viv isn’t the only girl in his life. But no, he’s a good lot. Moments later, her Uncle Soly (Eddie Marsan), a London cabbie who’s as wide as Pall Mall, bundles her off to the godforsaken railway siding that is Jack’s hiding place. Her true love, it seems, has daringly infiltrated the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement, part of an effort by a group of Jewish anti-fascists to stop attacks on synagogues by its thugs. Thanks to the intelligence Jack passes on, Soly and his gang are often able to thwart the movement’s plans. “Everything seems absolutely fine until the moment that it ain’t,” her uncle shouts, trying to explain the fear that is spreading like wildfire in the Jewish East End. Viv, though, doesn’t really need to be told. In Manchester she shared her bedroom with Rosa, a camp survivor who could be brought to terrified tears by the clunking of the Epsteins’ boiler.
Ridley Road, adapted from Jo Bloom’s novel by Sarah Solemani, is based (loosely) on historical events. In these years, unfathomable as it seems now given the closeness of the end of the war, the far right was indeed on the rise once again; Colin Jordan, played here by Rory Kinnear, really was the leader of the National Socialist Movement. Is Viv, having dyed her hair blonde, about to follow Jack’s example by becoming a spy in Jordan’s camp? Thanks to a brief flash forward, all we know at this point is that she and a small boy who calls Jordan “Daddy” will soon be holed up with him in a huge pile in Kent – which is where Ridley Road spirals, perhaps a bit preposterously, into fantasy (Jordan actually married Françoise Dior, the fascist niece of the fashion designer, in 1963).
Of course, an outlandish plot doesn’t necessarily make a show unwatchable – the nation stuck like glue to Vigil, after all – and while some of the more cartoony performances may, at times, be on the wrong side both of “gor, blimey” and “baruch hashem”, O’Casey is captivating as Viv, just the right combination of innocence and burgeoning experience. She and Kinnear are reasons to stay with it. And at least its producers seem to understand that the decades, far from being the distinct entities beloved of popular historians, sit inside one another like matryoshka dolls. They give us rag-and-bone men in horse-drawn carts as well as the new tower blocks; bomb damage as well as girls in lime-green mini-skirts. That Viv knows how to come by a prescription for the pill doesn’t mean she won’t have to endure kippers for breakfast with her quietly racist landlady, Nettie (a surprise turn by Rita Tushingham).
But Solemani’s script strains predictably hard for parallels with our own times – you will hear the words “we want our country back” more than once – and thanks to this, it doesn’t dare do anything other than take Jordan and his rabble far too seriously, inadvertently imbuing them with a horrible glamour they do not deserve. The National Socialist Movement and the various parties that succeeded it were endlessly riven by in-fighting; they never came close to achieving power. If I also tell you that in 1975, Jordan was convicted of shoplifting three pairs of women’s knickers from a Leamington Spa branch of Tesco, Rory Kinnear’s Nazi salutes may start to seem more ridiculous than sinister: a pantomime that can’t disguise his character’s essential smallness; his utter cowardice, his lack of any real ideas.
This article appears in the 06 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Unsafe Places