Warning: this article contains spoilers for the first episode of Ridley Road, BBC One’s disturbing new spy thriller.
We knew from the get-go that BBC One’s Ridley Road was going to make for intense viewing. We just didn’t know how intense.
Based on Jo Bloom’s acclaimed book of the same name, the series opens on an immaculately blonde Vivien (an astonishing Agnes O’Casey in her first TV role) laughing in a sunlit room. The setting is idyllic; she’s dressed in a pink nightdress, singing nursery rhymes to a cherub-faced child, and seemingly very happy.
“Halt,” says the child suddenly. “Daddy’s coming.”
As Vivien gently smooths the pyjama-clad boy’s hair, Rory Kinnear’s Colin – based on real-life neo-Nazi Colin Jordan – wanders into the room, prompting both Vivien and his son to throw him smiling Sieg Heil salutes. Then, jarringly, Vivien turns, and she’s transported into the not-so-distant past; just like that, she’s a gentle brunette, sitting down to dinner with her Jewish family and her drip of a fiancé.
More importantly, though, she’s a young woman with zero connection to, or even a faint awareness of, the UK’s rapidly rising National Socialist Movement (NSM).
On the surface, Ridley Road is all glitz and glamour, whisking us back to the 1960s and the decade’s all too familiar aesthetic; the big teased hairstyles, the black eyeliner, the bold red lips, the still covetable fashion. All of these trappings, though, serve to catch the viewer unawares.
We think we know the London of the swinging 60s, and so we think we know this story. Instead, though, we delve into a truly disturbing part of the city’s history – and one that seldom gets revisited. Indeed, as showrunner Sarah Solemani explains: “Britain’s relationship with fascism is closer and more alive than we like to think.
“Luckily, so is our rich heritage of fighting it.”
As seen in the first episode, Vivien – who escapes her family home (and her father’s attempts to marry her off to a ‘good Jewish boy’ – flees to London in the middle of the night and takes up a job at a London hairdressers.
Our hero isn’t just hoping to start a new life, though; she’s also hoping to track down her one true love, Jack (Tom Varey). But, when she finally does, she learns that he’s in deep undercover mode, posing as a staunch member of the NSM.
Jack’s mission isn’t just incredibly dangerous, it’s vital, too. In fact, it is up to him to feed information back to a militant section of the Jewish community, the 62 Group, in order to ensure that they can avoid the frighteningly well-organised attacks of the NSM.
When Jack is seriously injured during an operation, however, it is Vivien who steps up and offers to take his place. It is Vivien who dyes her hair and transforms herself into a neo-Nazi sympathiser. And it is Vivien who steps willingly into the lion’s den in order to a) make sure Jack’s OK, and b) infiltrate the NSM herself.
While the Ridley Road premiere is absolutely flawless as a whole, there is one scene in particular that stands out – and it all stems from that Nazi-inspired rally we, the viewer, watch taking place in Trafalgar Square.
Speaking to The Guardian, Solemani reminds us that this shocking event genuinely took place in the summer of 1962. And that, worse still, it took place legally.
“The event had a nostalgia all of its own,” she says.
“The NSM waved swastikas with slogans that screamed ‘Free Britain from Jewish control’… [and] this far-right party, with its own paramilitary force called Spearhead, was led by the Cambridge-educated Colin Jordan, who deemed Oswald Mosley a ‘kosher fascist’ for being too ‘soft’ on Jewish people.”
Darkly, Solemani adds: “Surrounding Trafalgar Square were police officers, paid to protect the Nazi rhetoric under the auspices of freedom of speech, warding off the chorus of boos. The boos were voiced by groups of anti-fascists, who, when such events got violent, as they often did, would usually be arrested…
“The more I researched, the more horrifying were the details of this NSM-organised campaign of terror. These included a spate of synagogue arsons, in one of which a young Jewish boy was killed. Despite witness reports that NSM members had been targeting the Jewish school on Cazenove Road, police reported finding a bottle of fizzy pop on the premises, concluded it was a house party gone wrong and made no formal investigation.”
In the show, Vivien – who is a fictional character – is seen getting caught up in the rally and knocked down in a scuffle. Thankfully, she is helped to her feet by the son of her new boss, Stevie (Gabriel Akuwudike), who rushes her to safety.
Later, we see the two interact in the back of the salon; Stevie, a student and anti-racist activist, is keen to know who Vivien was marching with at the rally. He hands her a leaflet, too, informing her how she can help the anti-fascist movement.
Vivien, though, weakly waves him off.
“I’m not a political person,” she tells him.
“Yes, you are,” he replies.
This 8-word exchange sums up Ridley Road’s all-too important (and all-too timely) message. Because, to quote American political activist, philosopher, academic, scholar, and author Angela Y. Davis, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.”
Much as Vivien learns throughout the show’s first episode, we have to realise that being “well meaning” and “not racist” isn’t enough; we cannot silently disapprove of discrimination. Instead, we must become actively anti-racist.
So, what does this mean? Well, it demands that we use our privilege to take a stand against racism. That we educate ourselves and be intentional in adopting anti-racist practices. That, above all else, we ensure that we are consistently holding ourselves accountable when it comes to being an ally.
It is all too easy to, like Vivien, say that we are “not political”. To quote Stevie, though, of course we are. Of course we are. Because “what else is there to be?”
Ridley Road will continue on Sunday 10 October via BBC One at 9pm.
You can watch the first episode on BBC iPlayer now.
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.