Although it’s less than twenty years after the end of World War II when Ridley Road opens, neo-Nazism is still alive and thriving under the auspices of the National Socialist Movement in the United Kingdom, targeting Jews, Black, and brown people in the alleged interests of racial purity. Its headquarters are on London's Ridley Road itself, in the heart of the Jewish community.
Screenwriter Sarah Solemani and director Lisa Mulcahy bring Jo Bloom’s novel of the same name to life and present a vivid picture of life in East London in the early 1960s. Its story may be set geographically close to Call the Midwife, but this drama does not deliver hope as that series does. It’s not yet the swinging sixties and in this crowded, bustling area in the heart of Jewish London, there are still visible bomb sites, and massive rebuilding is underway to provide for a growing multicultural population. In the street markets, and aboard crowded red buses, Cockney slang is packed with Yiddish words. It’s all brought to life with newsreel footage from the period blended into the dramatic action.
But the beginning of the first episode isn’t quite what you’d expect. We’re at a magnificent Georgian country house where a young blond woman and a small boy romp together, straightening out bedclothes and singing nonsense songs. And then Daddy arrives, full of smiles, and the three of them formally start their day with a Nazi salute. The father is Colin Jordan (Rory Kinnear) and the young woman is Jane Carpenter, who we next meet as the very brunette—and very Jewish—Vivien Epstein (Agnes O'Casey) with her family in Manchester at Sabbath dinner.
Vivien has just become engaged to Jeremy Klein (Preston Nyman), and the two families have pulled strings to get a huge photo and announcement in the Jewish Chronicle, Britain’s oldest national Jewish newspaper. It’s a friendly, relaxed scene, but we’re reminded of recent history. Roza (Julia Krynke), a relative and Holocaust survivor, becomes upset when she believes she can hear someone upstairs. The family takes it in their stride and Jeremy very sweetly offers to go and check that all is well. Later, in a touching scene with Roza, Liza Epstein (Samantha Spiro) apologizes for not getting Roza out of Europe earlier. No one knew the danger faced by Roza and her immediate family, and Liza, who delayed her arrival because the room wasn’t ready, now has to live with her guilt.
But the relationship between Vivien and Jeremy seems to be a bit lukewarm, and that’s because she is still in love with her ex, Jack Morris (Tom Varey). They meet unexpectedly after hours in her father’s tailoring shop, and Jack won’t tell her where he’s been or what he’s been doing. In a brief, passionate scene she makes it very plain she is in love with him, but he tells her to forget him. As we might have suspected, Vivien’s engagement pleases everyone except herself. It’s a family arrangement.
Roza and Vivien watch as Jack and her father David Epstein (Will Keen) meet outside the house that night before he drives off. Seeing Vivien’s yearning, Roza encourages her to go to London after him. She also provides Vivien with the train fare and advises her to change her name. “If you learn one thing from me,” Roza says, “learn the right time to leave.”
Aboard the train to London, Vivien nervously hides her Star of David pendant, and then makes her way to the address Roza gave her, a battered old fabric store on Ridley Road. Inside, Soley Malinovsky (Eddie Marsan) is surprised to recognize his niece but for various reasons, neither he nor his wife Nancy (Tracy-Ann Oberman) wants to speak with her. So they send their son Ronnie (Dannie Sykes) to answer the door. Apparently, the cousins haven’t met before, because they don’t recognize each other. Ronnie tells her that Jack isn’t around and has probably got another girlfriend by now. But Soley follows Vivien, just to keep an eye on her, and watches as she browses a shop community board and then goes to look at a room for rent.
Vivien (calling herself Vivien Evans) meets her new landlady, Nettie (Rita Tushingham), whose crumbling row house is due for demolition. Nettie is nervous about this changed London, and attends community meetings where the blame is put squarely on immigrants. Right-wing community leader Gary Burns (Nigel Betts) builds on everyday fears: People can’t talk to each other anymore. Prices are going up. Jobs are going to immigrants, not “us.” Corner shops are being taken over by faceless corporations owned by one of the four Jewish families who own everything in the world. It’s time to take the country back.
Vivien has a job interview at a hair salon in Soho, a lively, diverse, rather sleazy area, and she and owner Barbara Watson (Tamzin Outhwaite) warm to each other immediately. She also meets Barbara’s mixed-race son Stevie (Gabriel Akuwudike), a law student. When Vivien goes out to explore London she finds herself in Trafalgar Square where a Nazi rally is taking place and, to her shock, she sees Jack among the Nazi elite surrounding Colin Jordan.
Fighting breaks out, and Vivien is hauled to safety by Stevie, who is there to protest the Nazis. Yet a policeman, armed with a truncheon, shouts at him to leave the girl alone. In his eyes, Stevie is the threat.
Shaken, Vivien calls home and asks her mother for reassurance and comfort. Her mother is relieved to hear from her but everything is not fine. Her fiancé’s family, the Kleins, are really upset that she’s disappeared and there may be repercussions for her father’s business and the family rent (the Kleins own the Epstein house).
Later, her father fakes a phone call from her and reports to her mother that Vivien is fine, she’s in London staying with a friend and will be back soon. This is the first hint that David Epstein may have more at stake than anyone in his family knows, particularly Liza. And what, really, is his business?
The next day, as she’s sewing an embroidered butterfly over a tear on her new coat, Stevie sounds out Vivien’s political beliefs. He gives her a "Students Against Fascism" leaflet, but she tells him she’s not political. She cuts hair; that’s all she does. As she leaves the salon, Uncle Soley stages a “surprise family reunion.” He and Ronnie whisk her into his cab while she rages that her mother will be furious with him, and who’s this “Peter” they’re going to see? They drop her off in a deserted railway siding where Jack is waiting, and he tells her she shouldn’t have come.
I do bad things to bad people. I lie, I steal, I cheat. I can’t be trusted and you just follow me to the depths of hell. Not a good idea.
Vivien calls his bluff. It was her decision to get out of Manchester, nothing to do with him. She’s angry, smacks him a few times, and then they kiss and are able to talk honestly. Jack is working undercover with the neo-Nazis under the name of Peter Fox; he’s been able to avert attacks on innocent people, saving lives and property by getting word to Soley in time. He loves her. The worst thing, he tells her, is that it’s not just Colin Jordan and his toughs; it’s ordinary people, wondering why something isn’t being done about the endless Jewish question.
Soley turns up to take Vivien home, and as he’s driving, tells her she has to go back to Manchester the next day. Forget about Jack; he has important work to do and she needs to move on. He shows her a building, a Jewish school (yeshiva) that has no Star of David or identification because it would be too dangerous. An attack is planned, and he knows because of Jack’s work. Did Roza ever tell her what happened to her family? No, Vivien says. But Soley knows how the Nazis befriended the Jews in their town, acting like friendly neighbors for a number of weeks before the Jewish families were rounded up in 20 minutes and taken away in dead of night.
Everything seems absolutely fine until the moment it ain’t, and then it’s too late.
As it turns out, Jack is chosen for the Yeshiva attack that night. Soley, Ronnie, and others show up with baseball bats and cricket bats, but the neo-Nazis throw a Molotov cocktail into the building. Jack is badly injured. The next morning Ronnie turns up at Nettie’s house in a cab, and Vivien defiantly tells him she hasn’t packed yet. But his other passenger is Rabbi Lehrer (Allan Corduner), whose name Vivien knows. Her father has read his books. The Rabbi has bad news. A Yeshiva student was killed in the attack, and they haven’t heard from Jack although they know he was injured and was taken to hospital. It isn’t very wise, the Rabbi says, for anyone known in the Jewish community to try to find him.
But Vivien isn’t known, and she’s coached by Soley and the Rabbi on what to ask and how to walk confidently around the hospital. But she can’t find anything out. Soley is ready to blame her, but Nancy and the Rabbi leap to her defense. Angrily, she tells them they don’t have a clue. Soley explodes, the Rabbi tries to quiet him down, and Nancy asks Vivien what she means. It’s obvious to her. What if Peter Fox had a girlfriend from up north who was concerned because she hadn’t heard from him and came to find him?
At first, the group is skeptical, but eventually allows Vivien to run through some scenarios (I can’t help feeling that the actors must have enjoyed this immensely, and wonder how scripted it was). Nancy suggests that Vivien not make it just about a missing boyfriend, but she should present herself as a fan of Colin Jordan; appeal to his vanity, because that’s what men like—they’re simple creatures, all of them. The three men present suddenly become very busy.
That night, Vivien goes blonde. She has to look at the part. Soley drives her to the neo-Nazi headquarters, She’s terrified, and quotes Psalm 23 to calm herself. Twenty minutes, tops, Soley tells her, and he’ll be waiting. Neither of them realizes that someone else is watching: Stevie, who is rightly suspicious of her behavior.
One of Jordan’s hard-faced accomplices lets her in after she quotes some Nazi slogans (and how can that possibly feel?). She’s led to Jordan’s office. She is now blond, refined, charming Jane Carpenter. They shake hands. “Mr. Jordan, such a pleasure to meet you at last", Jane says, as Jordan's smile slowly fades from his face.
What an ending, and what a great start to this series. What did you think?