Ridley Road: What Have We Learned About Antisemitism?

A Review

vivien is in the middle of an alt right rally. There are antisemetic
Ridley Road, BBC

Introduction and background

A bold dramaticisation of antisemitism in 1960s London, Ridley Road sparks uncomfortable but necessary conversations. One of the most absorbing shows I have seen in a long time, BBC’s Ridley Road is the story of the 62 Group and their efforts to prevent fascism in London after the Second World War. 

Based on the true events of the rise of the 62 group, who banded to create opposition to the increasing Nazi presence in the city at the time, this fictionalised story depicts Vivien (Agnes O’Casey), a young woman who becomes involved in the efforts. 

From the very first episode, it is noticeable that the props and costume department had done a wonderful job at bringing the scenes to life. All Vivien’s outfits are gorgeous and rich with colour and vintage detailing. We are treated to vibrant sets, perfectly-executed storytelling, and are left with a deeper understanding of the issues Jewish people in London faced in the mid-1900s. The series also creates the space for serious reflection upon how much we’ve changed—and how much we have not. The BBC drama was adapted and written for screen by Sarah Solemani, and directed by Lisa Mulcahy.

Told in four episodes and based on the 2014 Jo Bloom novel by the same title, we follow Vivien Epstein as she enters a world of infiltration and espionage. Putting herself directly in the line of fire, Vivien risks everything to obtain evidence of fascism and paralegal military organisation within the National Socialist Movement (NSM).

This series is set before the introduction of any hate speech legislation in the UK, and painstakingly portrays the brutality of the attacks faced by Jewish people at this time. 

The National Socialist Movement was once the largest neo-Nazi group in the United States, and Ridley Road reflects this by including the arrival of a hugely prominent American Nazi, George Lincoln Rockwell (Stephen Hogan), as a momentous event to the London group. 

The NSM has an interesting title to begin with—the socialist claim has been long disputed by academics and politicians alike. There have been many world leaders who rose out of socialism and into fascism, such as Italy’s Benito Mussolini, but does that make the two labels intrinsically connected? Obviously the answer is no, so why then do Nazi’s label themselves as socialist? 

Nazi ideology is explicitly focused on the eradication of racial diversity and the belief in a ‘superior race’, with antisemitism specifically running through its core. The populist roots of the group leaned into the idea that the party was for ‘all’, and this translated into socialist policies to keep the larger population onside. Although the NSM originally claimed to be a socialist organisation, the socialism of such groups has always been secondary to their platforming of racial elitism and xenophobia.

To claim that right-wing groups are predominantly focused on this and that their racial views are not the main draw for their followers is disingenuous. They made space for those who held views so heinous that they were shunned by every other party. This was their audience and had little to do with economics or fiscal policy. What this display of apparent socialism did do, though, was encourage voters and supporters from a broader political spectrum. Just like Hitler’s Nazi party, the NSM gained traction quickly because of its perceived popular appeal under the guise of reform and unite socialist policy. 

This series demonstrates how quickly such groups can rise, and the damage that they can do in just a short time. Ridley Road also reminds us that most of the people attracted to the party are wealthy and see themselves on the right side of the political spectrum. We are shown the lavish house of a Duke, a main sympathiser and donor, as well as the riches of the founding and leading members. 


The first three episodes of the drama are distinct in my mind from the fourth. I felt drawn in and fully immersed in a way that is unusual for me, even with shows I really enjoy; I found myself surprised each time the titles rolled around. This was mostly due to the engaging acting and the way that each scene holds tension and intrigue. There is no filler and no room to fall out of interest with the ever-moving story. I think the decision to make this a four-episode drama was a wise one, as drawing out any aspects of the story might have lost it its sharpness. 

These first three episodes are all about Vivien, her move to London, and her introduction to the world of fascism and racism. After living outside of London for her whole life, and of course living in a world before social media, she is relatively unaccustomed to the abuse and the hate that can follow around those who are different and she finds this shocking.

Her character is portrayed well to capture the sophistication and depth of her personality, but O’Casey also superbly demonstrates through subtle facial expressions and body language that Vivien is rarely comfortable in her surroundings. She is focused on being useful, and brazenly volunteers herself as an infiltrator—despite her lack of experience. We are really getting to know her character here, but it is still difficult to ascertain how much of her activism is through her love of Jack (Tom Varey), and how much is from the social pressure of her family and new acquaintance Stevie (Gabriel Akuwudike). As we know, Stevie told her that an anti-fascist must act, instead of simply not being a fascist. 

This is a notion that has been prevalent in social discourse over the last few years. Variations of it include the slogan, “it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist”, from political activist Angela Davis, as part of a push-back against systemic racism.

With more focus than ever on elevating the voices of minorities and voices stifled by oppression, Ridley Road has come at an important, and indeed crucial, time. It also makes the debate specific to antisemitism more accessible for those who have the privilege of ignorance.

Over time and as Vivien begs her father to allow her to continue her mission, it becomes clear that things have become more personal for her. As she takes on the fight head-on she becomes absorbed in her usefulness and her value to the 62 Group and less concerned with pleasing Jack, who she has begun to wilfully defy. 

The fourth episode is different. Vivien and Jack have realised that they are in danger, and Vivien knows that if she doesn’t escape now with enough information to bring legal charges against Colin Jordan (Rory Kinnear) and his Spearhead thugs then her work and risks will have been for nothing. 

There were some drawbacks to this final instalment, however. Mostly, this came from dispersed moments that felt a little hard to believe. These created punctures in the flow of the final episode. There is also a call-back to the opening scene of the first episode, which was a clip shown from the future. The moment in question is the moment before Vivien enters immediate danger, however, it is not a particularly significant moment in and of itself, and it being shown at the very beginning feels somewhat incongruent. 

Whilst she is making her urgent and dramatic escape, Vivien stops to speak to and pray for Paul (Henry Wilton-Hunt), who has the suitcase of information that she needs. I can’t imagine even the most gentle of people stopping to be kind to a child for so long whilst they are desperately trying to escape a group of very dangerous and violent men. It is a contradiction to the intelligence we know her character has. 

vivien is in the middle of an alt right rally. There are antisemetic
Ridley Road, BBC

It also seems peculiar that, despite everything that has already happened, Vivien seems to draw a line at attempting to smash through a wooden door. After Paul locks her in a bedroom for fear that she will leave him lonely, Vivien opts to tear wallpaper off the ceiling and crawl into the loft space rather than attempt to smash a door or window. We saw other unrealistic scenes earlier in the series, including when she is seen hurriedly dying her hair with stolen bleach. Vivien managed to achieve the ashy platinum look that many of us would die for whilst hunched over her bedroom mirror – I would have preferred to at least see some struggle and re-dye before she reached the perfect disguise. But it is the unfolding events in this final episode contain the most narrative oversights. 

When Vivien does escape and hitchhikes her way to the railway station, she does not notice Jordan boarding her carriage until he is sat beside her with his hand clamped firmly down over her leg. As somebody we have seen to be hyper-vigilant and clever, it is interesting that she would not have been looking out for Jordan as she escaped. Perhaps his sudden appearance was intended to shock the audience, but, in the context of the episode, it only made me question the realistic integrity of Vivien’s character.

This and the scenes that followed were provocative in many ways. When Vivien calls out to the rest of the carriage that she is in danger and the man beside her is not her husband she is simply stared at. Not one single person makes any attempt to help her. In fact, she is not even afforded a glance of sympathy. This presentation of the plight women face on public transport, and in public in general, was stark. While times have moved forward and fewer people might be willing to turn a blind eye today, many women still fear being approached or harassed in this way, and Ridley Road has captured the hopelessness that a victim might feel in this scenario. 

Vivien is being taken away by her relatives because they feel she is meddling. They are dragging her down the street, one either side of her with their arms around her elbows.
Ridley Road, BBC

Reception and analysis

Ridley Road also sparked some controversy about the representation and opportunities for Jewish actors. O’Casey, playing the main character, is not Jewish. Sarah Silverman, among other Jewish actors, has criticised the lack of Jewish actors in Jewish roles.

This backlash is founded in historic erasure of Jewish culture and the blind eyes that still turn away from antisemitism. Eddie Marsan, who plays Vivien’s uncle Soly, revealed that since the series aired he has been faced with torrents of anti-Semitic abuse, despite not being Jewish himself. Leaning into the debate, he stated that at least for him moving onto the next character is an option. In recognising his position, he also highlighted the chasm between Jewish and non-Jewish actors, one his experience barely eclipses.

There is also room for diversity in Jewish casting. To this day, actors are cast in Jewish roles because they fit the physical stereotypes of Jewish people, rather than because of their ethnicity. Actor Ari’el Stachel spoke recently in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and stated that in third grade he had been told he was, “too black to be Jewish”. These stereotypes are perpetuated for as long as we opt for Jewish-looking actors above Jewish actors themselves.

Earlier this month, Tasmin Greig, who played Jackie in the much loved Channel Four series Friday Night Dinner, spoke in an interview, expressing that she, “probably shouldn’t” have played a Jewish character. She later elaborated, saying that if the show was cast now there would have to be more conversation about the ‘necessity’ of herself fulfilling that role.

While the Jewish community does not suffer in the same ways that it did in the 1960s, there are still a lot of issues of racism that remain unresolved, and the abuse of Jewish people is sadly not a thing of the past.

Since the 1st of February, 2014, ‘hate speech’—that is language used to discriminate, threaten, or abuse on the basis of inherent traits including race, gender, sexuality or religion—has been a crime in the UK under Section 57 of the Crime and Courts Act (2013). Penalties in England for hate speech include fines and imprisonment. Despite this, hate crimes in the UK have been rising rapidly, first in the aftermath of Brexit and then in misguided response to the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018-2019 the UK recorded 103,379 incidents of hate crimes, and in the year ending March 2021, this had risen to 124,091.

Ridley Road also comes just a few years after major revelations and accusations of antisemitism within the UK’s Labour party. Lord Field resigned the whip in 2018 over the issue of antisemitism, adding that Labour was “increasingly seen as a racist party”. So have we really come as far since the mid-1900s as we would like to think? The NSM does still exist, albeit as a shell of its former self. The group still thrives off antisemitic rhetoric.

Overall, this series did an excellent job of bringing to life what times were like for Jewish people in London not so long ago. While we are not by any means in a state of eradicated antisemitism, the increased awareness and activism around all forms of racism is making progress towards a more equal society—albeit at an appallingly slow rate. The beautifully put-together drama exposes the ugly cracks in modern society, and encouraged me to think more deeply about the inequalities we still observe, and the ones we perhaps sometimes overlook. It also reminds us that, no matter how far we have come, we still have progress to make.

Written by Anna Green

Politics graduate based in the UK. I'm passionate about writing so I can usually be found buried in ink and paper. Proud writer for 25YL!

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