Ridley Road – BBC 1

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It’s not often that the TV adaptation of a book is better than the book itself, but writer Sarah Solemani, and executive producer Nicola Shindler from Whitefield, have done an excellent job with this.  Oh, and I’ll just point out that a lot of it was filmed in Manchester, in Bolton and in Ashton-under-Lyne.

It’s quite a bold move by the BBC to show this in the iconic Sunday 9pm slot, usually associated with cosy Georgian or Victorian-era costume drama, but the fact that some of the actors, notably Tracy-Ann Oberman, have spoken of their concerns at the risk of receiving abuse on social media *because* of it – especially given their experiences of such abuse in the recent past – just shows how much it’s needed.

The story’s been completely changed.  In the book – review here – the central character Vivien has recently been orphaned, moves from Manchester to London to look up someone she’d briefly gone out with whilst he was staying with her family, and finds out that he’s involved in the 62 Group, working against the National Socialist Movement*, and also that her late father was involved in its wartime predecessor, the 43 Group.  It’s mostly the men who are involved in the action, with the women watching from the sidelines and mopping up the blood.  However, in this TV version, Vivien is part of an overbearing family trying to push her into a marriage with a family friend, and then runs off to London in pursuit of the man she really loves, finds out that he’s involved in the 62 Group, and becomes actively involved herself.

I wasn’t all that keen on the overbearing family, who were rather stereotypical and seemed to have walked straight out of the pages of a Maisie Mosco book, but I think the idea was to give her a safe, cosy background and for her then to find out that danger lurks in the outside world, and you can understand the reasoning behind that, especially as this clearly is very personal to many of those involved.

Nicola Shindler’s spoken about how she herself resigned from the Labour Party because of the culture of anti-Semitism that had been allowed to flourish under Corbyn’s leadership, and Tracy-Ann Oberman, who plays Nancy, has spoken about the horrific online abuse she received from Corbyn supporters.  Earlier this year, there were some deeply unpleasant incidents in which mobs drove through predominantly Jewish areas of London and Manchester, shouting threats.  And, as the story shows, and which oddly seems to be have been forgotten in recent times, people who attack one minority group will often attack another minority group too: we saw a mixed race character receiving abuse from members of the National Socialist Movement.

A bit more background information would have been useful.  We kept being told that Vivien and Jack had had some great romance, but we didn’t see any of it.  And that her parents had split them up, but it wasn’t clear how or why.  We were made aware that there’d been a big falling-out between Vivien’s parents and her uncle and auntie, who were very involved in the 62 Group, but we didn’t really find out why.  And some of the depictions of Jewish religious rituals may well have been confusing to people who weren’t familiar with them.  But it’s only a four-part series, and you can only fit so much in.

*The 62 Group.  In July 1962, the National Socialist Movement held a mass rally in Trafalgar Square under the slogan “Free Britain from Jewish Control”. A riot broke out at the rally, and, shortly afterwards, the 62 Group was set up.  The timeline got a bit muddled in the programme, but that was because the writers obviously felt it important to show the rally – to show swastikas being waved in Trafalgar Square, and people saying all sorts, because there were no laws against hate speech then.  There are a lot of issues now because it’s so difficult to stop hate speech on social media, and the programme did show how important and essential legislation is.

It also showed how easy it is for rabble rousers to whip up hatred.  Vivien’s landlady, who seemed like a harmless little old lady, was going along to meetings, where local Fascist leaders were going on about how corner shops were being forced to close down because Jewish-owned Tesco were opening supermarkets.  People twist tropes and stereotypes to suit themselves and the issues of the time, and it soon escalates.

One stereotype which the authors have spoken about trying to challenge is that of the minority groups who are victims.  This is Black History Month.  I have seen dozens of lists of “recommended reading”.  Nearly every book on those lists has been centred on accusing white people of racism, rather than saying anything positive about the achievements of black people.  This series is very much about fighting back, about challenging those who attack minorities.  The police and the authorities were seen as doing little to help, and that has some parallels with today, if not here than certainly in the US.

All in all, it’s a challenging story, and, as I said, it’s a bold move by the BBC to show it, especially in that iconic timeslot.  Nobody wants this sort of thing to be making headlines.  No minority group wants to see prejudice against them being all over the news, and becoming a political issue.  Nobody wants to have to form a 62 Group.  But the writers and actors have spoken out about how necessary this series is, and bravo to the BBC (and I don’t often say that!) for recognising that.

 

Ridley Road by Jo Bloom

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  A TV adaptation of this will be shown later this year, and, although it doesn’t look as if it’s going to bear much resemblance to the book, I thought I’d read the book anyway.  In the early 1960s, our heroine Vivien moves from Manchester to London, where she finds that all the people she knows there, some old family friends and a young man on whom she’s very keen, are involved in the 62 Group, a militant Jewish group working to counter the threat of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement.  She also learns that her late father was involved in its predecessor, the 43 Group.

It’s not a particularly well-written book, but it’s well-meaning and it tells an important story.  There’ve been some deeply unpleasant incidents recently: we’ve had thugs from Bradford coming over to predominantly Jewish areas of Manchester to vandalise cars and shout abuse at people, a Labour councillor in Blackburn making comments which aren’t even fit to repeat, and even worse incidents in London and other parts of the South.  Some of the actors have spoken about the importance of the plotline, and I’m sure that Red Productions will have done it justice.

In the book, Vivien’s boyfriend Jack is a journalist who infiltrates the National Socialist Movement and helps to bring its leaders to justice, whilst Vivien works at a hairdressing salon.  Bearing in mind that this is set  in 1962 – and the book is based on real life events – that’s probably fairly realistic, but the TV series has got Vivien also being at the heart of the action and the danger, presumably because the idea of a strong female character was more appealing than one who was on the sidelines.   And there’s a lot of danger – there’s considerable violence in the book, as the two groups clash at rallies, and young Jewish men and young black men are badly beaten up.

There’s a Swinging Sixties vibe to it all as well – the salon at which Vivien works is in Soho, and there’s quite a bit of talk about hair and clothes and music.  And that does contrast sharply with everything that Jack’s finding out about what the neo-Nazis are up to.  There are an awful lot of minor characters, and a rather unconvincing plot about an aspiring musician who fancies Vivien and follows her around.

It’s not brilliant, as I’ve said, but it’s worth reading because it draws attention to the periodic rise of extremist elements in society, and their attacks on minority groups.   I’ll certainly be watching the TV series.  In the meantime, if you fancy giving the book a whirl, it’s currently on offer at £2.99 for the Kindle version.