Ridley Road – Review


Ridley Road is the latest historical drama from the BBC that aired over four weeks on normal television whilst being dumped all at once on BBC IPlayer for those who wanted to go ahead and binge, and the results were pretty fascinating – rife with historical accuracy and a care to bring the ugly side of the 1960s to life in a way more authentic than Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, also out this week, although gritter and not quite as stylish, this film introduces us to the rise of the Neo-Nazis under Colin Jordan and focuses on the 62 group, a group of real-life anti-fascist Jews who sent their own undercover into the Nazi movement in the wake of World War Two, based out of London in order to take them down from the inside. It’s a chilling premise that has unfortunate, eerie connotations with the current fight against fascism today – the show ends with the words “the fight continues”, and reminds you that sadly, it is not too far removed from our current political climate, being incredibly timely in its approach.

Rather than focusing on professional spies – Ridley Road, adapted from Jo Bloom’s book, sends you into the world of amateur espionage. For those expecting professional James Bonds here with the ruthless combat skills of Jason Bourne, don’t, they’re well-practiced but often clumsy at best, outright inexperienced at worst. Sarah Solemani takes the reigns and introduces us to Kent, 1962 – where what seemingly looks like a stereotypical upper-class family, with a young blond woman, make the bed before being joined by the man – who engages them in a Nazi salute. It’s something that recalls the growing horror and unease of HBO’s The Plot Against America or the brutal parallel world of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, but is set in reality without the need for alternate history – made even more frightening with the usage of real-life archive footage compromised of the end result of what must be hundreds of hours of carefully curated research.

To see fascists march through Trafalgar Square en-masse after spending the last two years working just around the corner from there is frighteningly powerful, and the images of people living and going about their ordinary lives as cars that the main protagonists drive by brings to life the often-forgotten part of historical fiction: Ridley Road manages to make London feel alive and lived in when often similar pieces can make it feel empty. Our viewpoint into this world is Vivien Epstein, a fictional character inserted into real world events ala Uthred in The Last Kingdom is played tremendously well by Agnes O’Casey, who links up with the 62 group and is recruited by Eddie Marsan’s Soly, to infiltrate Jordan’s mob. The initial motives of Vivien are simple: to find her missing, already undercover ex-boyfriend Jack Morris (Tom Varey). But what starts as a quick mission quickly snowballs from there, with Morris’ fate being very much unknown.

The human drama of Ridley Road shines through the most here and it’s the real human relationships where it is at its best. The characters are excellent and well-developed, Rory Kinnear is suitably terrifying as Colin Jordan and makes for a formidable antagonist – easily despicable – and the four episodes that Ridley Road has to offer fly by at the speed of a feature film half its length. The film itself emerges as vitally important viewing – it can feel a bit Call the Midwife-y at times, but it’s at its best when recreating the period with immaculate archive footage that I wish would be more commonplace in films. Agnes O’Casey carries the role absolutely through it – and it’s clear that she’s an actor to keep an eye on in the future, embracing her first television role with relative ease.

You can stream Ridley Road on BBC IPlayer now.

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