The narrative follows that of young Vivien Epstein (Agnes O’Casey), a sweet Jewish girl drawn to London chasing a fling with bad-boy Jack Morris (Tom Vasey) and content with working in ‘Oscars Hair Salon’, owned by the maternal yet brash Barbara (Tamzin Outhwaite). Yet once her Uncle Soly (Eddie Marsan) and Aunty Nancy’s (Tracy-Ann Oberman) identities as key players in ‘The 62 Group’, fighting for the dignity of their Jewish community, Vivien quickly finds herself a double-agent and mistress, living under an alias and collaborating with the upper echelons of the National Socialist Movement.
Considering her limited experience, O’Casey not only offers a mesmerising portrayal of the danger’s faced by ‘The 62 Group’ in fighting fascism but markedly illustrates the steady transformation of Vivien from a simple dreamer to a strong, courageous femme fatale plotting the downfall of such powerful socialites and politicians as Francoise Dior (Romane Portail) and George Rockwell (Stephen Hogan), leader of the American Nazi Party.
Rita Tushingham gives an incredibly memorable performance as Nettie Jones, a working-class veteran of the community and Vivienne’s lodging host. She becomes embroiled in hate speech following the stripping of traditions and decimation of the East End for post-war reconstruction but repents in an emotional climax after learning of Vivienne’s struggle.
Tushingham heads up a fantastic supporting troupe encompassing Danny Hatchard (Lee), Gabriel Akuwudike (Stevie), Samantha Spiro(Liza Epstein), and Danny Sykes(Ronnie Malinovsky), all of whom sit either side of the conflict and offer their own grit and depth to the narrative.
Yet they are all surpassed by Rory Kinnear, fresh from his Bond duties, and giving the most disconcerting and chilling performance as Colin Jordan- the unhinged, sociopathic, sieg-heiling leader of the NSM. Certain scenes make the skin crawl with unreserved lech, whilst others genuinely horrify in their impermeable anger and hatred for the Jewish community; there are certainly shades of Robert Carlyle’s terrifying depiction of the Fuhrer in Hitler: The Rise of Evil.
And therein lies the real unsettling nature of ‘Ridley Road’, mirroring events of the Nazis rise to German office; with the synagogue attack mirroring beer hall putsch’s, the fire at NSM headquarters, and subsequent framing of Sol Malinovsky imitating the infamous Reichstag Fire of 1933, and rising anti-immigrant rhetoric amongst seemingly ordinary citizens a neat parallel of German submitting to Jewish vilification.
a country of discontent is a breeding ground for the extreme right, and maybe we aren’t so far away from Ridley Road as it would appear.
With Jordan’s claims to purify and ‘build a new Britain’ this paralleling of Nazi Germany tied with the idea of rampant fascism manifesting amongst disenfranchised locals, resonates as uncomfortably close to our contemporary political climate. Perhaps this also serves as a stark warning against the pitfalls of blame, advising certain factions of British politics to resist hatred and take ownership for their own actions, rather than shifting the blame to minority groups. As highlighted in the violent young thugs of the NSM, a country of discontent is a breeding ground for the extreme right, and maybe we aren’t so far away from Ridley Road as it would appear.
Indeed, both Eddie Marsan and Tracy-Ann Oberman have been vilified on social media by a minority since the show premiered for taking roles as Jewish citizens. To those people, well done, you’ve demonstrated exactly why this brave, and historically accurate retelling of a struggle against fascism remains exceedingly relevant.
Despite its kitsch elements of 60s life, Ridley Road is a heavy watch, but a necessary one. With a fantastic narrative, adrenaline-fuelled action sequences, and memorable performances, it presupposes itself as the action-spy thriller, yet offers so much more, legitimising the struggle of the Jewish population both then, and now, and reminding the public of the horrors of the far right.