It’s the Swinging Sixties in London’s East End, and far-right fascism is on the rise.
Enter Vivien Epstein, a young Jewish hairdresser from Manchester who finds herself embroiled in an undercover movement against racism, after following her lover, Jack Morris, to the capital.
This sets the scene for a new four-part BBC thriller called Ridley Road, written by Sarah Solemani and based on the book of the same name by British author Jo Bloom.
It’s a vivid, romantic, and inspiring series, which marks rising star Aggi O’Casey’s first television role (she plays Vivien) and also features Rory Kinnear, Eddie Marsan, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Tamzin Outhwaite and Tom Varey.
The thrilling drama is inspired by real events; Jack (played by Varey) is a member of the 62 Group – a militant coalition of Jewish men formed in 1962, largely in response to the National Socialist Movement established by Colin Jordan (played by Kinnear).
Londoner Marsan, 53, plays cab driver Soly, the leader of the 62 Group. The Ray Donovan star says he watched documentaries and read books ahead of taking up his latest role, but he also already had a deeper understanding of
the drama’s context from his childhood.
“My father was raised on Cable Street and I come from the East End of London,” he says. “So, I am very aware of the history of normal people taking on fascists in the East End. It’s the proudest part of our history, I think.”
He continues: “I grew up with men like Soly; tough, Jewish, working-class men.
“It’s a very important story to tell, because of the rise of antisemitism on both the left and the right, and I think young people need to know what antisemitism is.
“It’s very insidious, and I know it’s a strange word, but it’s almost a ‘seductive’ racism. It’s sold as egalitarianism. People can make you feel like you’re trying to create an equal world.
“I was brought up in Tower Hamlets, which is the most multiracial borough in the country. I’m not religious in any sense – the only value I can pass on to my children are the values of the celebration of diversity that I was blessed to be raised with. And so, it’s very personal for me to do something like this.”
Marsan also revealed that he was inspired to take on the role after seeing the effects of antisemitism first-hand in recent years.
He says: “I was involved in the People’s Vote Campaign in Britain to have a second EU referendum. Being involved in that I got to know a Jewish female MP, who became a friend of mine, and I became more aware of the antisemitism she was suffering and the antisemitism that was coming to the fore in the UK.
“We used to argue against it on her social media, but I thought that there was something more constructive I could do. So, when [Solemani] approached me about doing this project, I thought I always wanted to put my talent and my crafts to good use, especially fighting racism.”
He adds that the story is in many respects an “inspirational” one in the way it shows “working-class Jewish people taking a stand”.
Marsan says: “I mean it was only 20 years after the end of the Second World War. These characters have uncles, aunts and parents who died in the Holocaust. So, they’re also dealing with generational trauma. I found the story inspirational because it showed that if ordinary people take a stand against racism, then they can make a difference.”
Playing Soly’s wife Nancy is 55-year-old Oberman. Having grown up in a Jewish family in Stanmore, north London, the former EastEnders and Friday Night Dinner star could also draw on her own experiences for the part.
She says Nancy reminds her of her great-grandmothers and great aunts from the
East End “who had come off the immigrant boat with nothing and whose sheer determination, grit, toughness, love of fashion got them through it”.
She recalls: “One of my great-grandmothers was called Sarah Portugal; she lived in the East End, she smoked a pipe, but she wore a slash of red lipstick no matter what was going on.
“These women were very fashion-conscious, and I like to think Nancy had a bit of that as well. She worked in a fabric emporium, and she marries a man like Soly; she’s his right-hand woman and I love their relationship, the equality. He’s the brawns and she’s his hands in the back and the brains.”
Over the past four years, Oberman has been standing up to what she sees as a “huge rise of antisemitism on social media”. And she hopes that Ridley Road will remind people of the anti-Jewish hatred in British history, which has “been forgotten in the annals of time”.
“When people talk about Jews as if they’re all rich and controlling, they have to remember that the Jewish socialist background came from the East End, from these working-class boys like Eddie represents, like Nancy represents,” she explains.
“These working-class Jews came over as immigrants, mainly in 1905-7, fleeing the pogroms [in Eastern Europe]. They came to Britain thinking it was a beacon and a haven of tolerance, were treated like complete outsiders; ‘no blacks, no Jews, no dogs’ was on the list of all boarding houses and hostels.
“Jews have always been ‘othered’. And we have very conveniently forgotten this little piece of history that Ridley Road is going to tell so beautifully, and that fascism is there lurking under the surface, and that the Jews had to look after themselves because the authorities weren’t helping them.
“I’m hoping there won’t be a backlash on Twitter to this because this tells the true story.”
Ridley Road starts on BBC One on Sunday, 3 October, 9pm
Writer Sarah Solemani: Just why are people still drawn to the Far-Right?
What is Ridley Road is about?
Ridley Road is inspired by the true story of a revival of fascism and neo-Nazism in 1962 and a group of Jewish men and women who club together to form the 62 Group, which was an anti-fascist resistance movement. They tried to beat the fascists off the street and push them to the fringes of British politics, which they were successful in doing.
Our show centres on a fictional character, Vivien, who gets roped into this underworld and goes on this crazy, mad and brave adventure.
Why do you think this story is an important one to tell?
The dilemma of 1962 is still one that we’re grappling with now, which is why are people drawn to the far-right? What is it about that ideology and rhetoric that is still appealing so many years on, not just in England, but in America, Eastern Europe, India, Brazil…? It’s something that has had a surge of popularity. It isn’t enough to identify these people as monsters or stupid. We have to work a bit harder in understanding the logic behind this world view.
One of my guiding principles with the show was how to tell a story about how good people are convinced of bad ideas. Or how good people can come to bad conclusions, which is pointing at the other and blaming them for everything that’s wrong with your way of life. Clinging onto this nostalgic view of how things were, the culture that has been lost, an identity that has been robbed. Once we can really get into that psyche then I think we’ll understand things much better.
The 62 Group in the series is based on the real group. Do you feel like they are the mirror image of the National Socialist Movement?
There was a lot of controversy at the time about the tactics of the 62 Group because they were not afraid to use violence. They would go to these meetings and marches and punch, fight and cause destruction.
A lot of them were ex-servicemen who had fought in the war, but when they came home, there were swastikas on the street because of freedom of speech laws. This was before the hate speech or race relations action, which slightly changed how you could spout off certain views.
But back then, fascists were deliberately marching in Jewish areas, they had swastikas on Trafalgar Square and the police had to protect them.
It was actually the anti-fascists who got arrested, which we depict in our show. The logic of the 62 Group was, ‘Well if the law isn’t on our side and we’re getting beaten while fascists are calling for our demise and destruction, then we have to physically protect ourselves and scare them away.’
This tactic caused controversy within the Jewish community as well, especially among the elders who argued: “You’re going to their level, this is not who we are, you’re dragging us through the mud, you’re sullying our reputation.”
It’s like the conversation you have in America with Trump supporters: “They go low, we go high.” It’s an existential question: At what point do you pick up your sword and defend your life? These are the stakes the 62 Group were dealing with.
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