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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Fighting the fascists in the Swinging Sixties

Reviewed by Ben Soton

Ridley Road. A four-part mini-series adapted by Sarah Solemani from Jo Bloom’s 2014 novel of the same name. Currently showing on BBC1, Sundays at 9pm. Also available on BBC iPlayer.

SET IN 1962, a young Jewish woman, Vivian Epstein (played by Agnes O’Casey), leaves her comfortable life in Manchester in search of her boyfriend. She finds work as a hairdresser and on her afternoon off wanders into a fascist rally in Trafalgar Square only to find her lover, Jack Morris (played by Tom Varney), masquerading as a far-right thug. The organisation in question was the National Socialist Movement (NSM) led at the time by Colin Jordan and John Tyndall and campaigning in Ridley Road in London’s East End, from where the drama takes its name.

The drama has three areas of focus: those opposed to fascism, the fascists themselves and those naïve individuals fooled into supporting it. After Jack is injured in a street-fight Vivian becomes involved with a group of Jewish anti-fascists for whom he is working undercover. The group, led by Jewish cab driver Solly Malinovsky (played by Eddie Marsan), have fresh memories of the Holocaust and Cable Street and are determined to get this poisonous ideology crushed for good. Vivian infiltrates the NSM to discover Jack’s whereabouts.

Ridley Road also shows how fascism prays on people’s fears and even legitimate concerns. Fascists fraudulently claim to be opposed to capitalism and often promote an opposition to modernity.

In one scene a covert fascist sympathiser talks of the closure of corner shops due to competition from supermarket chains. For most readers under 70 it is difficult to recall a time when most shopping was not bought in supermarkets but in the early 1960s they were an innovation. The same demagogues often hark back to an imagined past when apparently everyone knew their neighbour and looked out for each other – a dog whistle reference to immigration. From personal observation, the death of community spirit is grossly exaggerated just as is the notion that it was somehow better in the past. Meanwhile, the street I live on still has a corner shop, only it is open for much longer than it would have been in the 1960s.

Colin Jordan (played by Rory Kinnear), the leader of the NSM, is portrayed as calm and collected, as well as a doting father. He is not a one-dimensional, spitting fanatic, the classic cartoon fascist. The rank and file, referred to as his men, are portrayed as thuggish and drawn from the lower end of the working class. The wife of one of them points out that the stately home, used by the NSM, has been donated by a wealthy aristocrat. A reminder that fascism is not about looking after the little people.

Ridley Road intertwines newsreel footage between scenes, which gives it a documentary feel. It contains several sub-plots, giving the drama an added suspense. Meanwhile, it also makes reference to the treatment, or should I say mistreatment, of women – both by the fascist movement and ironically also within the Jewish community. This multi-layered and largely accurate historical drama is definitely a must in terms of Sunday night viewing.