TV drama of fascism and resistance in Jewish East London
- Credit: Ben Blackall
The BBC's new Sunday night drama is a slice of forgotten British history centred around a Hackney street where anti-fascists meet to fight a burgeoning neo-Nazi movement.
Set in Hackney, but shot in Manchester, Ridley Road transports viewers to the early 60s as a group of brave Jewish men and women mount a resistance campaign against the National Socialist Movement.
Based on Jo Bloom's 2015 book, Sarah Solemani's script centres on ingenue Vivien Epstein who is drawn via a lover into the '62 Group'. She goes undercover to infiltrate the fascists who are spreading anti-semitic propaganda, attacking synagogues and marching through Jewish areas wearing Swastikas.
The four-parter features Rory Kinnear as charismatic NSM leader Colin Jordan, and Solemani, who was raised in Crouch End and attended Henrietta Barnett School, says: "The dilemma of 1962 is still one that we’re grappling with. Which is why people are drawn to the far right. It isn’t enough to identify these people as monsters or stupid. We have to work harder in understanding the logic behind this worldview."
Led by Eddie Marsan's Soly, the resistance were unafraid to use violence against the fascists. Hampstead actor Tracy-Ann Oberman who plays Soly's wife Nancy, says she already knew about the real '62 Group'. "I had family members who talked about being a part of the group and I know a leading member of the community who was a big part of it. It's important to remember that the Jewish community were under so much threat, so soon after the Holocaust. Fascist marches were taking place in Trafalgar Square, but the police and authorities did very little to protect the Jewish community. This is why they had to protect themselves."
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For Homerton-raised Gabriel Akuwudike, playing group member Stevie was an eye opener: "It's not something we were taught in school," he says. "I’ve shopped on Ridley Road with my dad since I was a kid and although I knew there was a large Jewish community in East London, I thought of Ridley Road as much more a Caribbean community. As I walked around, saw the bagel shop on the corner, and looked at old photographs, Hackney's strong Jewish community started to reveal itself."
Played by Crouch End actor Tamzin Outhwaite, Barbara is mum to Stevie and all too aware of hostility to minorities in 60s London.
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"There's an obvious sense of racism that she gets from being the mother of a mixed race child, wiping the blood from his head every time he gets beaten up or chucked in a cell. It seems she's got used to spending most days feeling fearful of whether he's going to come home alive, but it doesn’t become any less heart-breaking."
Gabriel adds: "Stevie's journey is inherently political, the language people would have used towards him, the things he has to do to be ok. He's on a journey following his instincts, finding what it is to be a political person."
He sees disturbing contemporary echoes in a scene where a Jewish shop is accused of putting British retailers out of business. "Things change but some things are universal like the way racism is based around fear, and how fear can be manipulated by puppet masters."
Gabriel feels the drama adds nuance to the "World War II narrative that we in Britain defeated the Nazis and were innately anti fascist".
"It's interesting to see another part of history, so we as a nation have another level of honesty. Seeing how politically things have developed in recent years, with Brexit, or a move towards the right, with populist, aggressive politics and nationalism having a comeback, this story is important. It allows us to look back and see things more truthfully."
For Outhwaite, whose parents are from Bethnal Green and who would often go to Ridley Road market with her mum, the drama shows the sheer bravery of standing up against prejudice.
"It shows you have to call it out if you are an ally, not just allow it to go unnoticed."
And she enjoyed working on Solemani's script which features good parts for women of all ages.
"Barbara's salon feels like a safe haven for these strong women - although smoking in a hairdresser with all that hair spray is dangerous in itself," she jokes.
Outhwaite has noticed both diversity in casting and better roles for women in TV but says "we aren't there yet".
"I have consciously taken smaller roles just to be a mother so you are not out of the house for ridiculous amounts of time but I would still like to see more older actresses on TV. We tell an awful lot of stories from the perspective of people in their 20s but women over the age of 40 are extremely funny, intelligent and know what they want in life. We want to hear their stories."
Gabriel agrees that "it's humbling what's happened at the moment with people being open to diversity of stories as well as characters - not just sprinkling diversity on top of old ideas. It's important to find these stories that haven't been told from that perspective."
Ridley Road comes to BBC One and iPlayer, with all episodes available Sunday 3 October.