BBC period dramas are a constant game of hit and miss. Some, such as the infamous Peaky Blinders, creep into the Netflix streaming stratosphere and sustain huge followings. Others, such as Black Narcissus, fall somewhat under the radar and maintain their spot on the BBC iPlayer box set page.
Ridley Road is the latest offering from the BBC, starring newcomer to the screen Agnes O’Casey as Vivien Epstein, a fictional addition to the true story of the rise of the National Socialist Movement and wider fascism in Britain during the 1960s. Epstein takes on the role of undercover spy within the NSM, contributing to an effort to infiltrate the neo-fascist movement and reduce attacks on the Jewish community of London. The premise follows the genuine political rhythm of the time but falls short in its delivery.
The character of Epstein, as a fictional part of the story, somewhat negates the seriousness of the historical plot. She is introduced as a naïve young woman, who – having never been out of Manchester and forever the ‘apple of [her mother’s] eye’ – somehow manages to convince the leader of the NSM that she’s dedicated to the cause with a blonde dye job and maternalistic sentiments. The storyline becomes obscured by Epstein’s oddly easy access into the movement. It is clear what the BBC is trying to do, and it could be said that this attempt to highlight the female contributions to altering the political tide of history is admirable, but unfortunately it doesn’t feel entirely natural, nor necessary. Other female characters – such as Epstein’s aunt, played by Tracy-Ann Oberman, already offer so much to the female efforts of the plot.
Where the show does find its target, however, is in the other characters that make up the 62 Group – mostly members of Epstein’s family that orchestrate the action against the NSM. Whilst the character of Sol, her uncle, seems like a Cockney caricature, his sentiment and drive are believable. One tense scene involving the storming of a synagogue develops this further – the reluctance of the character of the Rabbi to resort to violence set against the introduction of Spearhead, the NSM’s daunting military force, explains the real threat the rest of the show seems to be missing.
A further success of the show can be seen through the smaller scale dynamics of those living around Ridley Road – including the women at the hair salon and Epstein’s landlady. The local dynamic and the way the show highlights how the political climate affects their lives feel much more believable and may be seen as comparable to many people’s lives today. The message of the show genuinely comes across through their stories and their lived experiences; both as minorities and as members of the public caught up in by the rise of fascism detail the wider experience of the sixties that makes up the historicity of the show. This gives it the classic BBC quality of drama that so many members of the British public are fans of.
The true story of the NSM and the 62 Group may make for less entertainment but is arguably much more important reading – especially since, as the closing line of the show highlights – ‘The fight against fascism continues’.
Image courtesy of byronv2 via Flickr