Melanie examines the distinctly Jewish BBC historical drama, adapted from Jo Bloom’s powerful book of the same title.
BBC drama Ridley Road thrillingly follows Manchester Jew Vivien Epstein as she pursues a mysterious love interest to London, and escapes a dreary marriage. She soon takes on a vital role in a local Jewish anti-fascist group run by her extended family. Set in 1960s England, Ridley Road explores an ever-burgeoning fascist movement, still riding on the tailcoats of their German counterparts.
The series begins with the Epstein family: Vivien, her parents Liza (Samantha Spiro) and David (Will Keen), and her cousin Roza Furstenberg, a Holocaust survivor. Vivien’s impending betrothal to the drab Jeremy Klein, and the secretive abscondence of a former love interest, Jack Morris, prompts her to flee to London to find him and create a more exciting life for herself. Almost immediately, Vivien is thrown into the exhilarating and terrifying role of an undercover agent amongst the National Socialist Movement (NSM). Initially inspired by the discovery of Jack’s own covert involvement, she soon learns that, regardless of his role in her personal life, her need to continue is guided by the grave and deadly threats to the Jewish community.
"Vivien’s impending betrothal to the drab Jeremy Klein, and the secretive abscondence of a former love interest, Jack Morris, prompts her to flee to London to find him and create a more exciting life for herself."
Acting on Roza’s advice to hide her Jewish identity upon arrival to London, Vivien switches surname, from Epstein to Evans, and obscures her Siddur from her evangelical landlady, Nettie (Rita Tushingham). Initially gaining employment as a hairdresser and befriending law student Stevie (Gabriel Akuwudike), her job subsequently provides an apt cover for her more clandestine role and provides a safe cover for sensitive information exchanges with her Aunt Nancy (Tracy-Ann Oberman). Under the guise of another alias, Jane Carpenter, Vivien quickly gains the trust of the NSM leader, Colin Jordan (Rory Kinnear), and successfully retrieves information vital to the protection of her kin.
Newcomer Agnes O’Casey plays the reserved but assertive Vivien Epstein. Her character development from shy hairdresser to committed anti-fascist, whilst seemingly sudden, is made believable by the conviction of her acting. Undercover antifascist Jack Morris/Peter Fox (played by Tom Varey) has successfully convinced the NSM of his dedication to realise a fascist government and to the eradication of Jews.
Roza’s inclusion in the series really emphasises how recent and fresh in memory the horrors of the Holocaust actually were. Only a matter of years prior, the traumas of the camps are visibly still intrinsic to her everyday existence. Reluctant to discuss any aspect of her immediate family, Liza’s attempt to show what so many felt in the aftermath was deeply compelling: her regret about not doing something sooner and not taking the Nazi’s threats more seriously. Beautifully portrayed by Polish actor Julia Krynke, Roza’s character is fundamental to the Jewishness of the series.
"Liza’s attempt to show what so many felt in the aftermath was deeply compelling: her regret about not doing something sooner and not taking the Nazi’s threats more seriously."
Whilst all unquestionably brilliant portrayals, there begs the question as to whether the cast, given the content of the programme, should have been exclusively Jewish. There is something mildly discomforting about hearing non-Jewish actors Keen and Marsan weave Yiddishkeit so smoothly into their conversations, no matter how convincing the accent and how correct the context. More so in the US, there is a tendency to exaggerate the Jewishness of characters whilst simultaneously having them played by non-Jewish actors for bigger comic effect. I do not truly believe that writer Sarah Solemani, Jewish herself, had any intention of this. Her characters, whilst employing some typical ‘Jewish’ mannerisms, do not lack depth. Marsan’s Sol Malinovsky is iconic in his role as anti-fascist leader and Keen’s David Epstein plays his own part in the anti-fascist movement. Despite not being Jewish, Marsan has been subject to extreme antisemitic abuse for his role, a sad reality that most Jews are unsurprised by. With the news of the attack on the real-life Synagogue featured in the series, the importance of the fight against antisemitism cannot be overstated, and demonstrates that the threats that are portrayed in Ridley Road are not confined to the past.
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