Ridley Road reveals a darker side of Sixties

Sunday: Ridley Road; (BBC One, 9pm)

By Claire Cartmill
Saturday, 2nd October 2021, 5:00 pm

On January 6, the world watched as American supporters of defeated President Donald Trump broke into the Capitol building, while the results of the election that elevated Joe Biden to the highest office in the land were being certified.

Thousands of the rioters were members of right-wing groups or heavily conservative in their beliefs, and across the Pond, many of us comforted ourselves with the knowledge nothing like that could possibly happen here.

And yet some members of the public are concerned that nationalist sentiment on these shores is on the rise, particularly in the light of toxic conversations on social media platforms, where opinions that were previously thought of as too horrible to hold can be aired to millions.

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Colin Jordan, Vivien Epstein and Jack Morris

Fascism most notably took root in the UK in the 1920s, gained a celebrity in MP Oswald Mosely, and spawned several movements. They were never accepted as part of the political establishment and remained more or less on the fringes of the news headlines and most people’s lives.

But they didn’t vanish completely. In 2015, a novel by Jo Bloom was published which shed light on efforts by the Jewish community in the East End of London as they fought against a rising wave of fascism during the Swinging Sixties, resulting in street battles around Ridley Road in the East End.

It chronicles how 20-year-old Jewish hairdresser Vivien Epstein moved from her comfortable Manchester home to the bright lights of London, and it forms the basis for this four-part thriller, which marks the television debut of Aggi O’Casey as Vivien.

She’s come to the capital to track down Jack Fox (played by Tom Varey), with whom she had a brief but intense romance. It transpires that he is a member of the 62 Group, a real-life organisation of Jewish men who stood up against rising fascism in post-war Britain. While working with them, Vivien learns that Jack has been badly injured.

As events unfold, Vivien transforms her appearance and infiltrates the NSM, a neo-Nazi movement which is becoming increasingly prominent in London. As she descends further into the fascist organisation, her courage and loyalties are tested to the limit.

Award-winning Sarah Solemani adapted Bloom’s novel and said of the story: “Britain’s relationship with fascism is closer and more alive than we like to think. Luckily, so is our rich heritage of fighting it. Jo Bloom’s gripping book revealed a darker side of Sixties London and the staggering contribution the Jewish community made in the battle against racism.”

Eddie Marsan, who has often spoken out on social media about the twin scourges of fascism and racism, said: “I’m honoured to be playing the role of Soly, the leader of the 62 Group of Jewish anti-fascists who took on the National Socialist Movement in Ridley Road.

“In recent years anti-Semitism has re-emerged and now, more than ever, we need to hear the stories of how normal men and women put their lives on the line to stamp out this cancer.”

The supporting cast also includes Tamzin Outhwaite, Tracy-Ann Oberman and Rory Kinnear, who is in particularly sinister form as NSM leader Colin Jordan, an imposing and forthright activist who, through his fanatical and passionate speeches, incites racism and rioting.

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