A sunlit bedroom in a country house in Kent, 1962. An adorable moppet is helping a young blond woman make the bed. They are joined by the dapper man of the house. They gather in front of the window and smilingly give a Nazi salute.
So begins Ridley Road (BBC One), the four-part adaptation by Sarah Solemani of Jo Bloom’s 2014 novel of the same name. It is an arresting opening, made even more so by the fact that the story about to unfold, we are told, was inspired by true events.
The true part is the rise of neo-fascism in 60s England, when the dismal rags of Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, and the version of the British National party that would become the National Front, were supplemented by the National Socialist Movement led by a man called Colin Jordan. It is he – played by Rory Kinnear – who we see sieg-heiling in the sunshine.
The drama is named after the road that housed the headquarters of the coalition of Jewish men known as the 62 Group who took direct militant action against the NSM in particular. Their most famous confrontation was in Trafalgar Square in 1962, when Jordan – protected by the Free Speech Act – held an antisemitic rally where a riot broke out between attenders and protesters.
Ridley Road unfolds from the perspective of the blond woman we see in the opening, the fictional Vivien Epstein. Epstein (Agnes O’Casey, giving not a sign that this is her first television role) moves from her loving but claustrophobic home in Manchester, where she lives with her parents, to swinging London in search of ex-boyfriend Jack Morris (Tom Varey).
Morris, it turns out, is embedded in the NSM as a spy for a covert group of Jewish anti-fascist activists led by Epstein’s uncle Soly (Eddie Marsan). After taking part in an NSM arson attack on a yeshiva during which a student is killed, Morris disappears, leading Epstein to charm her way into Colin Jordan’s good graces to find out whether Morris has been unmasked, injured or killed.
Injured only! From there it is only a short leap to Epstein becoming embedded herself and working with Jack to avert further NSM attacks (including plans to disrupt the yeshiva boy’s funeral – there is a heartbreaking shot 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 gathers intelligence on Jordan’s plans and the “paramilitary force” he is training in the country house lent to him by a sympathetic aristocrat.
Though the main thrust of the story is the amateur espionage and the increasing involvement of Epstein in Jordan’s world, it is in the quieter, more domestic moments that the drama is most convincing. The ghostlike presence of the Epsteins’ relative, Roza (Julia Krynke), a survivor of the Holocaust scoured out by grief and suffering, abrades the conscience of Vivien’s mother, Liza (Samantha Spiro, who excels at nervy, inarticulately stricken characters and is well deployed here). Not appreciating how much danger they were in, she refused Roza’s family a place to stay when they were fleeing the Nazis, and her guilt fills the house as it must have done so many.
Elders, the fertile ground in which the seeds of antisemitism and assorted other bigotries flourish is well evoked. We see the comfort that Epstein’s aged London landlady, Nettie (Rita Tushingham), finds in the local community leader, Gary Burns (Nigel Betts), and his explanations as to why the world is changing so rapidly around her. You’ll never guess whose fault it is.
The London parts, egter, have a much broader-brush feel to them. The romance element – complete with potential rival in the form of Stevie (Gabriel Akuwudike), who currently has Vivien down as a secret fascist but, one suspects, will have the scales fall from his eyes before the credits on the third episode roll – feels awkward and unconvincing. The direction feels strangely stilted and the dialogue flimsy, the script never quite first-class. The parts set in the hairdresser’s where Vivien gets a job are almost cartoonish, and the relentless salt-of-the-earthiness of everyone born in the East End becomes quite grating.
Steeds, even if you might wish it exhibited a bit more complexity and artistic refinement, it is a drama with resonance. It has the right story to tell – alas – in our current dark age.