Every season, GBH Drama gears up to bring you the coverage of the latest and greatest British dramas. This month, we are receiving a new series of MASTERPIECE: Ridley Road. With intrigue, history, and an oft-overlooked dramatic storyline, this series does not disappoint. GBH Drama contributor Amanda-Rae Prescott is here to recap the magic as it happens..
ridley way is a four-part miniseries based on Jo Bloom’s novel of the same name and Historical Records. The series takes place in London in 1962, running parallel to season 6 of call the midwife – but ridley way shows the side of British politics and religion that other period dramas ignore. The first episode not only introduces the main characters, but also provides viewers with the most important historical facts needed to understand the rest of the series.
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The episode begins with a blonde woman and a boy who is her son (or stepson) in a very nice stately home. The boy’s father comes home and everyone greets each other with the Hitler salute. This intro, while jarring, makes a bit more sense once you keep watching the episode.
Vivian Epstein is a young Jewish woman who lives with her parents and an aunt in Manchester. She is engaged to be married to Jeremy, but she is not happy with the arrangement. Vivian still has feelings for her missing ex-boyfriend, Jack. When she runs into him unexpectedly at her dad’s tailor shop, she Vivian asks Jack where she’s been, but he’s super noncommittal and tells her to forget about him (but not before one last kiss). Later that night, Vivian sees Jack outside her house, but he only stops by to talk to her father about something before he leaves.
The next morning, Vivian discovers that Jack is on his way to London, supposedly on business tailoring assignments. Ella’s Aunt Rosa de Ella, a Holocaust survivor, tells Vivian to look up Jack’s true story. She advises Vivian to hide her Star of David, bring her hairdressing scissors so she can get a job, and call herself Evans instead of Epstein. Clearly, Vivian has never been this far from home before, but she takes the advice.
You can ask the question but you may not like the answer
Vivian finds the address where Jack is supposed to be on “business”, but a nerdy guy with glasses answers the door and says that Jack isn’t there. He also claims that Jack has a million girlfriends and, “apologizing”, tells Vivian to move on. Vivian is angry about this and runs off looking for a room to rent and the search ads for help. A man who is revealed to be Vivian’s uncle realizes why he was looking for Jack. He decides to follow her to make sure she stays out of trouble. Clearly, something is going on in that store besides cutting wool!
Finding an ex-boyfriend in a new city requires a place of rest and a job, and Vivian quickly acquires both. She finds a room owned by an older Catholic woman and a job at a hair salon in SoHo. Barbara, the owner of the salon, tells you that her duties are to clean and make sure the supplies are organized. Vivian also meets Barbara’s son, Stevie, who is a law student. He’s also biracial, but Vivian pays more attention to the fact that while he’s nice, he’s not Jack, who she still needs to find. Barbara suggests to Vivian that whatever man she’s worried about isn’t worth it, but if Vivian wants to try and win him back, she should buy some nice new clothes.
Armed with a new wardrobe to win Jack back, Vivian ends up in Trafalgar Square. Colin Jordan, the real life leader of the National Socialist Movement (played by Rory Kinnear), shouts about the deportation of all Jews from the UK. There are also far-right rallies interspersed with the rally. This anti-Semitic and also anti-immigrant and racist sentiment is the far-right’s reaction to post-World War II immigration from former UK colonies and the rise of national and international corporations blaming “others”.
Jack is right there, in the middle of the demonstration, waving flags. Vivian is extremely confused and starts screaming her name. At the same time, a fight breaks out between fascists and anti-fascists, knocking Vivian to the ground. Stevie manages to see Vivian in the melee and they escape. A policeman on horseback doesn’t bother to bother the fascist thugs who call Stevie racial slurs, but hints that Stevie is about to commit a crime. Later, in the living room, Stevie asks if Vivian is a member of any of the organized resistance groups fighting the fascists and she says that she has never been a political person. It could be argued that Vivian’s identity as a Jewish woman is inherently political, but she has to figure this out for herself.
Later, Vivian’s uncle Saul and his associate drive past Vivian’s crash pad and force her into their car. Vivian believes that she is going to be kidnapped from her but is told that she is going to find out about “Peter”. She is dropped off at an empty train station and she sees Jack hiding. Vivian finds out that her Jack is actually called Peter, and he joined the National Socialist Movement as a mole. Since he is undercover, she has to do what the other fascists are doing. However, he finds out about all the hate crimes the thugs are planning and alerts the Jewish community leaders in advance to prevent deaths and injuries. He is able to spy on fascists because he “passes” by not being visibly Jewish. In fact, he loves Vivian, but her job would endanger any girlfriend or wife of his and that’s the real reason he broke up with her.
While Vivian processes the answers to her questions, she calls home. Her father knows that Vivian is with her brother, but he deliberately hides this information from her mother. Aunt Rosa pretends that she has no idea where Vivian is even though she gave her the idea to run away to find Peter/Jack. Jeremy’s family is angry at the clearly broken engagement. Vivian tells her mother that she is fine, but that she needs reassurance that things are going to be okay. Finding out that your ex-boyfriend is a double agent for the Jewish anti-fascist movement is a lot to take in.
Uncle Saul points out that the fascists are plotting to attack a yeshiva overnight. Jewish institutions in London at the time had no signs or symbols on the building to stop death threats. Saul explains that Aunt Rosa was from a town where German soldiers stayed with Jewish families until they were ready to round everyone up in the concentration camps in the middle of the night. He wants Vivian to realize that thinking “it’s not going to be that bad” will always result in death. Peter/Jack is chosen to spy on the location. The other fascists have no idea that there will be Jewish men ready to fight them (and that the building has already been evacuated). Unfortunately, one of the fascists has a Molotov, and Peter/Jack is injured trying to stop the bottle from being thrown out a window. Peter is taken to the hospital but the Jewish leaders lose contact with him.
Vivian suggests that she try to get information from the staff, but the anti-fascists warn her that it’s risky since the fascists may be there too. He successfully sneaks into the room, but fails to locate Peter/Jack. Vivian realizes that if she is going to find out more about Peter/Jack’s injuries, she needs a better disguise. After apologizing for being late for work, Vivian manages to sneak out some styling supplies. Later that night, he bleaches his hair so it’s blonde so he can “hang out” better. Her next task is to talk to Jordan to find out where Peter/Jack is. Vivian pretends to be a fascist girl Peter/Jack dates to avoid suspicion. Vivian successfully infiltrates the headquarters. She doesn’t know it, but the audience can see Stevie spying on the place as well, and he hears Vivian repeating that script. The episode ends with Vivian meeting Jordan.
If you remember the beginning of the episode, the blonde woman with the child and the fascist husband is clearly Vivian. How does she get there herself from this point in the story? Did Peter recover from his injuries? Will Vivian ever return to Manchester? Hopefully episode 2 of ridley way Next Sunday I will answer some of these questions.