The London of the 1960s is one of those illusions that refuses to die. Even when sordid subjects are being brought to life – the Krays, the Profumo Affair – there’s always something glowing in the depiction. Grisly events invariably unfold against the background of a city hitting its stride, a place where a brighter, more progressive future with better pop music is just around the corner. It’s what Austin Powers mocked so effectively: not the clothes and music as much as the absurdly rose-tinted perspective of that decade offered by film and TV.
In this context, the four-part dramaRidley Road (BBC One) is another corrective. It has been a passion project for the actor and writer Sarah Solemani, who adapted it from Jo Bloom’s 2015 debut novel of the same name. It’s 1962, and 17 years after the end of the Second World War Nazism is alive and well in the UK. Rory Kinnear, fresh from his duties as Tanner in No Time to Die, takes another senior role in a conservative institution as the real-life figure Colin Jordan, leader of the National Socialist Movement. He’s an armband-wearing, Sieg-Heilling rabble rouser. In the opening to the first episode, his son leads him and a peroxide-blonde young woman, Vivien Epstein (Aggie O’Casey), in a fascist salute. So much for flower power.
We cut back to Manchester, meanwhile, where Vivien, brunette and markedly less made up, is a young hairdresser who longs to escape the strictures of her strait-laced Jewish family. Her family has arranged her engagement to a dull local boy, but she pines for bad boy Jack (Tom Varey). When he suddenly vanishes, she follows him to London’s East End. Compared to safe Manchester, it’s a wild frontier town, and she’s as intrigued as she is intimidated. She takes a job in a salon, but soon finds herself embroiled in a world of warring fascists and antifascists, the latter led by her Uncle Soly Malinovsky (Eddie Marsan). He’s a fictional character working for an organisation that really existed, the 62 Group. As Vivien finds herself at real-life events, like the 1962 Trafalgar Square riots, where the action is blended with archive footage, she is drawn into the struggle. Among all these cruel men, being a young woman might be an advantage.
By setting a made-up story within accurate historical context, Solemani gives herself plenty of freedom, and takes advantage of the licence. Ridley Road is an action thriller as well as a period piece, with chases, fights and romance to go with its political context. Marsan settles into the pugnacious Soly like an old chair. Kinnear creates a plausible demagogue out of Jordan, not a born monster but a grifter making the most of an opportunity. O’Casey makes a confident debut, as Vivien’s ingenue sweetness hardens in her rough new circumstances. Her chemistry with Varey sustains the plot through some of its more abrupt turns.
The contemporary parallels are so near to the surface that there’s no need to lay them on too thickly. Instead, Ridley Road shows that extremism needn’t arise out of extraordinary situations. It emerges from everyday life. It doesn’t take much, just a disgruntled population and leaders willing to exploit the febrile circumstances. The fascist complaints aren’t all straightforwardly evil. One scene in the first episode involves a protest against a new Tesco, a Jewish business, which will harm independent shops. Anti-Tesco protests, and antisemitism, are hardly unknown today.
None of which is to say Ridley Road skimps on traditional pleasures. There are all the usual aesthetic treats of the era: staid suits giving way to miniskirts, old-fashioned signage on shop fronts, cars and hats and musty tailors’ shops. For trainspotters, they even throw in a knacker’s yard of rusting locomotives. There’s a lingering glamour to all this, but it also feels like a fresh perspective on familiar times. When you’re reminded of some of the beliefs that were around at the time, the Swinging Sixties doesn’t look so much like an inevitable revolution as a lucky escape. Alternative paths are always available.
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