It’s fitting that Ridley Road, a BBC production premiering in the U.S. on PBS Masterpiece, is about a woman who runs away from the safe and expected and then quickly gets in over her head in some dangerous situations—because that’s not far off from the pace and plot of creator Sarah Solemani’s show.
The four-episode historical miniseries, which is an adaptation of Jo Bloom’s 2014 novel of the same name and is inspired by some actual events, is a romantic drama disguised as an espionage thriller. Agnes O’Casey plays Vivien Epstein, a hair stylist from a middle-class Jewish family in 1960s Manchester. The Holocaust is still fresh on everyone’s minds and the family even houses a cousin, Roza (Julia Krynke), who managed to survive the war but (quite understandably) is still riddled with trauma from her experiences. Ever in the business of making more Jews, it’s been arranged for Vivien to marry a nice boy from a prosperous family who just so happens to own the building where her father’s tailor shop is situated. But, because just the sound of that sentence sounds stifling, she packs a bag and runs off to London in search of Tom Varey’s Jack, the bad-boy boyfriend who truly has her heart.
In an extremely rapid succession of events, Vivien doesn’t find Jack right away. But she does find the secret spy offices of her estranged uncle, Soly (Ray Donovan’s Eddie Marsan), and his family—members of the 62 Group, an actual anti-fascist group that existed at the time. Thanks to some pretty cool-looking found footage and newsreel-style shots, she realizes that, Jack or not, swinging ‘60s London is a way better life choice than what’s waiting for her back at home. And, since she’s lucky enough to have a trade, she smoothly finds both a job at a local salon and affordable lodging in the home of a widow (Rita Tushingham’s Nettie Jones, herself battling the emotional wounds of losing three sons to the war while also having trepidation over the gentrification happening in her neighborhood).
Fortuitous circumstances strike again when Vivien follows a crowd to what turns out to be a fascist demonstration led by noted neo-Nazi Colin Jordan (Rory Kinnear doing his creepy, creepy thing), with Jack (working undercover) on the stage leading the charge as one of Jordan’s supporters. Even though Jack tells her not to get involved, Vivien makes herself available to the cause and is soon dying her hair blonde and heading to the neo-Nazi HQ where she easily establishes a flirtacious relationship with Jordan, and only really raises the suspicions of the two women on the premise (Hannah Onslow’s Elise, the pregnant and abused girlfriend of one of the cadets, and Jordan’s wife, Romane Portail’s glamorous and lethal Françoise Dior).
Whew. OK, look, I watch a lot of TV for a living as it is and the idea of suggesting more of it just seems ludicrous. Plus, we know that British TV isn’t as committed to the whole 22-episodes-per-year model that Yanks more willingly embrace. But a few more episodes would have helped; the speed at which all of this happens takes you out of the story. Vivien is no Elizabeth Jennings or Sydney Bristow. She has no background or training in this line of work and almost zero worldliness in the first place. That Vivien’s Uncle Soly sends her into it so easily or that she doesn’t immediately get herself (and Jack) killed is implausible, especially since Jordan and Dior were very much real—and very scary—people. The suggestion that she can bat her eyelashes and get so far so quickly simply based on feminine wiles is both sexist and a wonky plot device that makes you wonder if Jordan knows what’s up the whole time. (And if he does, again, why doesn’t he immediately kill her? Or at least have her followed?)
There is also the issue of casting. When the limited series aired in the U.K. last year, it reignited the debate of whether non-Jews should play Jewish characters and whether it was racist not to cast Jewish actors—especially in something that deals with the Holocaust. Solemani, whose father is Jewish, has argued in interviews of the importance of recognizing patrilineal Judaism, and O’Casey has spoken in interviews about her Jewish grandfather, actor Laurence Kenig. (Judaism has, historically, been something that is passed down from the mother’s side and can therefore be easily lost in our DNA after a few generations). Other actors, like Marsan, are not Jewish, although he has spoken about receiving antisemetic abuse online after Ridley Road premiered overseas. And, ironically given its involvement in the creation of the State of Israel, England itself is known for its own anti-semitsm, and for booting Jews from the country during various points in history. Could ??Solemani have tried harder to find more actors with Jewish roots? Probably. Are the themes of the show still prescient even though it’s set in the 1960s? Very much yes.
But even if we’re going to ignore all of this socio-political discourse and simply judge the story on its merits, Ridley Road doesn’t quite stick its landing either. What Solemani wanted was to create an espionage thriller. What this story ends up being is a period-set romantic drama. It’s not as slick as something like the Prime Video series Hunters, which uses comic book sensibilities and stylings to tell the story of a teen-aged math wiz (Logan Lerman’s Jonah Heidelbaum) who is indoctrinated into the family business of Nazi hunting in 1970s America. Nor is it as rhythmic as AMC’s adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl, where Florence Pugh’s left-wing activist Charlie Ross is sought out by Mossad and recruited to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist group.
Ridley Road is about two people who really love each other who may be torn apart by obligation and the lasting effects of war. While the idea of a young woman risking her life to topple the Nazi patriarchy is exciting, Solemani may have had a stronger story had she stuck with what the plot really wants to be. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with being a romance drama that doesn’t involve a character tight-rope walking across a rooftop in heels while holding a suitcase.
Ridley Road premieres at Sunday, May 1st on PBS Masterpiece.
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.
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