Ridley Road starts on BBC One on Sunday, October 3.
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 is rising star Aggi O’Casey’s first television role (she plays Vivien) and also stars Rory Kinnear, Eddie Marsan, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Tamzin Outhwaite, and Tom Varey.
What makes it more poignant is how it’s inspired by real events; Jack (played by Varey) is a member of the 62 Group – a coalition of Jewish men who formed in 1962, largely in response to the National Socialist Movement, which was created by Colin Jordan (played by Kinnear in Ridley Road).
Here, O’Casey, Marsan, and Oberman tell us more about the characters and timely themes explored in the drama.
Ridley Road was O’Casey’s first audition after graduating from The Lir Academy in Dublin, and she admits she found the script “really encouraging”.
It also feels relevant, because we are living in times when we are seeing the rise of fascism again. “It’s just as alive, just rebranded – and just as ignored,” suggests O’Casey.
“We see Vivien make decisions about how to take control and look after her community and the ones she loves,” she says.
“It’s a really important story for now because people feel really disempowered and they’re not sure how to go about things that they believe in and there’s so much fear. Vivien is scared all the time, but she fights through that.”
Londoner Marsan, 53, plays cab driver Soly, the leader of the 62 Group. Discussing his research ahead of filming, the actor – best known for crime drama Ray Donovan – says he watched documentaries and read books. But he also already had a historical understanding from his childhood.
“I grew up with men like Soly; tough, Jewish, working-class men,” he notes. “It’s a very important story to tell, because of the rise of antisemitism in 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.”
He adds: “I was brought up in Tower Hamlets which is the most multi-racial 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.”
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 reminds 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 people, she says, came over as immigrants around 1905, fleeing the pogroms. “They came to Britain thinking it was a beacon and a haven of tolerance, but 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.”
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