Ridley Road, episode 1, review: all the right ingredients – but the end result is bland

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Agnes O'Casey as Vivien Esptein - Red Productions/Ben Blackall
Agnes O'Casey as Vivien Esptein - Red Productions/Ben Blackall

Ridley Road (BBC One) had a great opening scene. A pretty woman and a young boy played sweetly together in a country house. Daddy came into the room. And then all three smilingly performed the Nazi salute, before the caption came up on screen: Kent, England, 1962.

I would love to be able to tell you that this four-part drama continued in this arresting style. Alas, it did not. All the ingredients are there: a fascinating period of British history, a contemporary resonance, and a lovely lead performance from an actress in her debut role. But the end product is curiously bland.

Perhaps it will improve in future episodes if Rory Kinnear is given more to do. He plays Colin Jordan, real-life founder of the National Socialist Movement. The series dramatises the efforts of the 62 Group, a collection of Jewish men and women who formed an underground anti-fascist movement.

I know the details of this not from the programme, but from reading the production notes afterwards, because nothing was terribly well explained. About 20 minutes in, I wondered if I had missed the first episode and was mistakenly watching the second.

Agnes O’Casey holds the attention as Vivien Epstein, a young Jewish girl from Manchester who runs away to London and ends up working undercover. O’Casey, in her first professional acting role, gives Vivien a blend of naivety and inner strength. But she’s been lumbered with a love story for which we have no backstory – when Jack (Tom Varey) tells Vivien she’s the love of his life, we have so little invested in the relationship that it means nothing at all.

Warm-hearted but frightened: Rita Tushingham as Nettie - Ben Blackall
Warm-hearted but frightened: Rita Tushingham as Nettie - Ben Blackall

The other performances include a constantly angry Eddie Marsan as underground leader Soly Malinovsky and Tamzin Outhwaite as a salon owner with a heart of gold and a mixed race son, and Rita Tushingham as Vivien’s landlady. At least the script doesn’t make all of Jordan’s supporters into cartoonish villains; Tushingham’s character, Nettie, is a warm-hearted woman who is simply alarmed by the pace of change in her community, and whose fears are preyed upon by the Far Right.

As for the period details: not brilliant. I know Soho wasn’t officially Swinging in 1962, but surely it wasn’t as dead as this? It’s a London drama clearly filmed nowhere near London (the buildings are all wrong). The budget doesn’t seem to have stretched far enough, particularly in the underpopulated crowd scenes. And all of this is made more obvious by director Lisa Mulcahy’s odd decision to cut her scenes with what appears to be archive footage of the real thing.

Writer Sarah Solemani has described her show as “an exhilarating, suspenseful, sexy journey”. Not yet, it isn’t. But the subject matter is a gift for a dramatist, so here’s hoping it picks up.

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