Ridley Road (2021): A Rare Portrayal of Fascism

By Eliza Gill

‘Ridley Road’. Pic: BBC

Ridley Road is one of the best depictions of fascism on TV recently, here’s why…

Recently, the BBC released a four-part spy-thriller called Ridley Road, which depicts the antics of the 62 Group, an anti-fascist movement, in 1960s London. Based on the 2014 book of the same name by Jo Bloom, this eye-catching and stomach-churning thriller is both enlightening, and entertaining. 

An often overlooked slice of British history is the treatment of the Jewish community after the Second World War. Blamed, shamed and mocked, the Jewish community was severely targeted by the National Socialist Movement (NSM), which claimed the community was attempting to make white men slaves. Britain’s history is steeped in racism, but it is also rich with movements aiming to combat it. Ridley Road is a portrayal of the Jewish community’s fight for themselves and other minorities in the face of racism. The show references real events that happened in the build-up to the main story, namely the Battle of Cable Street (1936) which saw a clash between fascists and left-wing movements – my great-grandfather being one of the fighters against the fascists. It is an important moment in British history as this era saw the rise of unlikely heroes, which is ultimately what the show is about.

The story follows Vivien (Agnes O’Casey), who is following Jack (Tom Varey)…who is following the neo-Nazi Colin Jordan (Rory Kinnear). It’s easy to follow – I promise! Her search for Jack, with whom she had an intense love affair, leads her to Ridley Road, London. She slips into a whirlwind of lies, riots and problematic beliefs after finding out that Jack has infiltrated the far-right NSM. Director Lisa Mulcahy, known for the gripping Years and Years (2019) and Red Rock (2015), brings to life this forgotten period of history.

One thing to be aware of before watching however is the gut-wrenching use of racial slurs by the members of the NSM. Anti-semetic slurs used to point the finger at the Jewish community back then still float around in some corners of politics today. From degrading names to violent protests, Ridley Road paints a picture of the anti-semetism that stemmed from the war. It must be said that Rory Kinnear’s performance as Colin Jordan is powerful. Talking to Drama Quarterly, writer Sarah Solemani explains that she “wanted to really get into the psyche of the far right and find out how good people get convinced of bad ideas”.  Indeed, she gives a certain complexity to the NSM members, ensuring that they are not so clear-cut. Indeed, she achieves this. Kinnear’s performance touches a nerve with the audience – if your blood is not boiling by episode three, we haven’t been watching the same show. 

Aesthetically, this show is a treat. Our eyes indulge in graphic mise-en-scene with the blue hues of the sixties pitted against the grim streets of London. It gives us a sense of the emergence of art and life after the war, as well as the problematic social attitudes. The smoke-filled hair salon Vivien works in is visually something we would expect to see in Grease, with hairdos to match. Composed by Ben Onono, the score that sets the backdrop of the series really gets your heart racing. Onono blends ticking sounds into the score to play on the audience’s minds; all you can do is watch from behind a cushion. Cinematography is crucial in showing how Vivien is feeling during her encounters with the NSM, and seamlessly goes hand in hand with the score. Claustrophobic close-ups box us in with her; we feel the increase in pressure as she gets deeper and deeper into the world of the fascists. Lisa Mulcahy succeeds in making a deliciously tense experience, with important undertones. 

If you can forgive a bit of weak dialogue and a slightly untidy ending (which could lead to a second series however) this show will educate in a thrillingly tense way. A visual delight, the four fast-paced episodes juxtapose the vicious language of NSM members with the eye-catching aesthetics of the 60s. Montages of footage from the 60s between scenes exacerbate the dark side of the ‘swinging sixties’ by providing a contrastingly bright backdrop. When all is said and done, this show is a thrilling watch, bringing to life an important subject that is more relevant today than ever.