In exploring the anti-Semitism that plagued Britain in the 1960’s, BBC’s Ridley Road aptly captured what it means to be actively anti-racist.
Warning: this article contains spoilers for BBC’s Ridley Road.
If you’re reading this, you’ve likely finished watching the hit four-part BBC series Ridley Road. The show, which premiered on BBC One on 3 October, is an adaptation by Sarah Solemani of Jo Bloom’s 2014 novel of the same name.
Upon airing, the show has been greatly received for its honest and thought-provoking depictions of fascist society in the United Kingdom, something that, until this point, has not been the focus of mainstream television.
For now though, we’re still reeling from the high-octane drama of the finale and what its messaging highlights in the wider conversations around British history.
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After three episodes of espionage, whispers and hair transformations, the fourth and final episode starts the morning after Vivien Epstein (Agnes O’Casey) and fascist leader Colin Jordan (played by Rory Kinnear) have spent the night together. Blood-stained sheets reveal that this is the first time Vivien has had sex but, awake and alert, she fumbles around the empty room in search of the document-filled suitcase that could take Jordan and the National Socialist Movement down.
Before we know it, the scene that opened the series – of the formidable Jordan walking into the room giving the Nazi salute alongside his son and Vivien – plays out. But Colin’s once moody facial expressions actually signal a deeper, more menacing truth: he knows who Vivien is.
From the first few scenes of the finale, the feelings are made clear: this will be a nail-biting episode where you just hope Vivien and Jack make it out of the claustrophobic National Socialist Movement (NSM) environment safely.
The tense morning meeting scene sees Lee’s wife, Elise (Hannah Onslow), finally air her suspicions about Jack in front of the members of the NSM to a crowd of men declaring her hysterical. Vivien plays into it and makes affectionate remarks about women and pregnancy – a brilliant way of maintaining her cover but, for a modern viewer, it shows just how easily women’s fears went ignored.
As the pace of the episode picks up, Jack hurriedly tells a frantic Vivien that Colin knows exactly who she is but she maintains that she’s “done what needed to be done,” hinting at the previous night.
Ignoring his requests to leave, Vivien embarks on a wild goose chase around the grand grounds of the manor house in which the NSM is training: pulling things out of cupboards, running around the kitchen and pleading for Colin’s son to help her look for the suitcase.
After a tense confrontation in the cellar, Colin assaults Vivien but she manages to escape by throwing gasoline in his face. What follows is a getaway worthy of an action movie: dusty attics, bloody knees and slipping on rooftops with the important battered suitcase in hand.
In the background of the episode, we also get a look at how Vivien’s family in London is reacting after Soly (Eddie Marsan) is arrested by police. Having been framed by the NSM, Stevie (Gabriel Akuwudike) relays the information to Soly’s bemused family. His character also acts as a stark reminder of the police brutality that Black men had to endure during the 60s.
Stevie also reminds us that racism, in all its forms, was prevalent in 60s London society but ultimately, those fighting against it often need to aid one another in their fight for equality.
One of the most poignant moments of the finale comes when Tracy-Ann Oberman’s character Nancy remarks, almost hopefully: “At the end of the day, we’re all the same, ain’t we?”
Stevie replies: “No, we’re not quite the same. But maybe we’re fighting the same fight.”
It’s a moment of relative calm within the safe space of Soly’s tailoring business but acts as an important reminder in the fight of anti-racism, even today.
Throughout the series, and with the seamless weaving in of original archival footage of the time period, it’s plain to see how attitudes towards women were. From wolf-whistling police officers to leery glances, it’s always been in the background of the episodes but this pervading sense of misogyny comes to the fore in this episode.
Even when she’s walking along a dirt road and asking a man for a lift to the station, you’re holding your breath in case something more sinister may occur once Vivien gets in. On the train to London also, her pleas to the strangers within her carriage after Colin joins her go unheard. Uncomfortable glances are shared amongst the other passengers, there are eye rolls and a ‘friendly’ stranger even ends up handing Colin the crucial suitcase that Vivien had managed to hide.
A hard-to-watch assault scene that sees Vivien kicked and punched in the backstreets of a London pub also sees Colin being restrained with cries of “this is my country” ringing out.
A sigh of relief is let out once Vivien finally gets into the black cab that takes her back to Ridley Road and back in the bosom of her family.
A character arc that was most welcome in the finale came in the form of Vivien’s landlady, Nettie Jones (Rita Tushingham). Up until this episode, she had been voicing her displeasure of the growing diversity in her area. But after a visit from Gary Burns (Nigel Betts), she appears to have seen the error of her ways.
“We’re sitting a shiva for the young gentleman who lost his life, it’s a Jewish custom,” she says proudly.
Her final say on the matter sums up the ridiculousness of the racism that permeated the time too:
“Actually Mr Burns, if you wouldn’t mind, you can just sod off out of here. I lost three boys during the war, fighting off vicious buffoons like you. I’ll be long cold in the ground before I let history repeat itself.”
As the episode draws to a close, Vivien’s numb yet authoritative presence is best captured when she relays the information to the Special Force police officer. Her presentation of the documents and unflinching stare is the complete opposite to the nervous, naïve Vivien that we were introduced to in the first episode. Her fight for equality and justice has hardened her but also woken her up to how consequences to these actions are rarely ever seen.
In an emotional final scene, Vivien bids farewell to her family and boards a plane to Tel Aviv, never knowing if she’ll ever be able to see her family again. Using her cousin Rosa’s passport, she finally takes a seat and most surprisingly (or not, if you have an eye for a romantic plotline), Jack is seated right next to her. He’s not dead after all and the pair get their ‘happy ever after’.
The finale reminds us of the never-ending fight against racism but also provided some light in the form of love, family and redemption within its characters.
Image credit: BBC