In the disturbing opening scene of Ridley Road, the camera pans across the lawn of an idyllic English countryside manor, grass twinkling with morning dew. Inside, a young blonde woman tickles a boy in pyjamas who is giggling uncontrollably. Footsteps outside the door. "Daddy’s coming!" The boy and the woman hasten to straighten themselves as the boy’s father enters the room smiling. Sun streaming through the window, it is a loving portrait of domestic bliss. Then, in turn, each of them throws their arms up in a ruler-straight Nazi salute, proudly announcing: "Wir kommen wieder." We come again.
The subtitle jolts the viewer to realisation. "Inspired by true events. Kent, England, 1962."
Based on Jo Bloom’s thought-provoking 2015 novel of the same name, Sarah Solemani’s four-part BBC adaptation unpacks an important yet seldom seen time in London’s history. Amid the glamour of the Swinging Sixties, fascism and neo-Nazism were on the rise in postwar Britain, and violence spilled onto the streets.
It’s a chilling sight and although some of Ridley Road’s storylines and characters are fictional, the show is set against a genuinely historically accurate backdrop of Britain’s murky past – a past that many may not be aware of or even want to remember.
In the next scene, we jump back in time and up north to Manchester, and the elusive blonde woman is surprisingly revealed to be Vivien Epstein (played by newcomer Aggie O’Casey), a young Jewish woman. At this current moment, a brunette Vivien is suffering through an awkward family meal opposite her dreary future husband. The marriage has been arranged by her parents for financial convenience and, furious, Vivien escapes on a train to London, intent on tracking down her true love Jack (Tom Varey), who her father has forbidden her from seeing.
Once in London, she starts working at a hairdresser's in Soho. Serendipitously she bumps into Jack at, of all places, a fascist National Socialist Movement (NSM) rally at Trafalgar Square. It is a hateful sea of swastikas, "Keep Britain white" placards, Nazi salutes and a rousing speech from Colin Jordan, who was the real-life leader of the NSM and a pivotal figure in postwar neo-Nazism in Britain, played here with terrifying conviction by Rory Kinnear. Spliced with the scene is documentary footage from the time; the show wants to remind viewers that these rallies actually happened in central London, and it wasn’t very long ago.
We find out that Jack is dangerously embedded in the NSM, planted there undercover by the 62 Group – the real-life, Jewish-led, anti-fascist street fighters who made staggering contributions in the battle against racism at the time. Leading them with steely bolshiness is Soly Malinovsky (Eddie Marsan) and their mission is to foil the NSM’s violent organised attacks against the Jewish community.
When Jack is injured and goes missing during a covert operation, Vivien finds herself to be an unexpected asset at a time when women were generally overlooked and underestimated. She dyes her hair blonde and uses flattery and innocence to infiltrate the masculine ranks of the NSM, pretending to be an ally. The question is, how far does one go for love? To save lives? To change history?
Disturbing incidences of police brutality, violent clashes, a swelling far right and a stomach-turning sense of unease in the streets. Ridley Road paints a portrait of a Britain decades past but switch on the news today and it feels scarily current. Anti-vaxx movements and Brexit discourse have found an alliance in the British far right and, earlier this week, far-right group Britain First was allowed to re-register as a political party, despite being deregistered in 2017, notorious for anti-Muslim harassment and its leader, Paul Golding, holding convictions for a terror offence and hate crimes.
In one scene in Ridley Road, Vivien is beginning to balk at the weight of her responsibilities as the dangers of going deeper undercover dawn on her. These are violent, hateful people, not to be messed with. But the 62 Group wants her to go further in. Nervously she faces off with Soly, reasoning that her political standpoint alone is adequate involvement. "I don’t agree with their views, I find them utterly despicable," she stammers.
At which point Soly launches into an impassioned diatribe which calls to mind American political activist Angela Davis’ essay written during the Black Lives Matter movement. "Anyone can find views objectionable," he tells Vivien. "It doesn’t matter if you’re non-racist or non-fascist, no. It only matters whether you are anti. It doesn’t matter if you can sit in your salon, filing your nails and shaking your head at the wireless, but then you switch it off and you carry on with the same old routine. The question is, what do we do when we switch off the wireless? An anti-fascist fights. An anti-fascist does."
A simmering tale of love and a female spy story rolled into one against a luscious Sixties backdrop, Ridley Road observes the courage of those historically overlooked individuals who made sacrifices to be not just "non" but "anti". It makes no small effort to conceal its aphoristic messaging that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it, and it is impossible to ignore the glaring contemporary parallels. One thing is clear: racism – and the fight against it – remains very much alive.
Ridley Road is available on BBC1 from 3rd October