Both sides of Sarah Solemani’s family have roots in the Ridley Road area of London, so when she read author Jo Bloom’s haunting novel, Ridley Road, she saw personal elements in the story. Still, the narrative on screen in her new miniseries — a young Jewish woman caught up in anti-fascist espionage — casts a wider and more thrilling net.
Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
London in the Swinging Sixties was the home of international cool. Big hair, groovy beats, and stylish threads all found their home in the streets of the British capital.
Stevie You nervous or something?
Vivien Um, it’s just I’ve read about salons like this in magazines. It can’t be real.
Stevie Oh it’s real.
Jace But it was also home to a less attractive force: the insidious neo-fascists of Colin Jordan’s National Socialist Movement.
Colin Jordan Jews are the saboteurs of Europe, destroying all that is true and just and good.
Protestor You fascist scum!
Colin Jordan Ah!
Jace Ridley Road, a new four-part miniseries, follows the fictionalized story of Vivien Epstein, a young Jewish woman from the Midlands who moves to London to follow a lost love and finds herself wrapped up in the very real Jewish resistance to Jordan’s neo-Nazis.
Vivien I’d like to thank you, Mr Jordan, for all your hard work in getting our country back from alien invasion. We need you. The country needs you. A leader like you to take our country back.
Soly Your mother will sit shiva for me all over again.
Jace Writer Sarah Solemani adapted her miniseries from author Jo Bloom’s novel of the same name. But it was the surprising similarities of Vivien’s life in the city to Solemani’s grandparents’ parallel lives in the working class Ridley Road area of London that helped make the story sing on screen.
Jace And this week we are joined by Ridley Road writer and executive producer, Sara Solemani. Welcome.
Sarah Hi, thanks for having me. Pleasure to be here.
Jace Pleasure to have you. How did you come to be aware of Jo Bloom’s novel, and what about it most deeply resonated with you?
Sarah I read a review for it, an early review before it came out in Red magazine because I’ve written a piece for Red magazine in the U.K. and I just saw this little blurb about a romance story set in 1962 that looked at a sort of fascist revival. And I didn’t really understand, like many people, how organized and frightening this fascist revival was. So I read the book and immediately thought this would be a great TV show and contacted Jo and sat with her and and tried to persuade her to let me adopt it. And then I went on this very, very long journey of of trying to get it made. So from reading the book to being on screen, it was about eight years, actually, all in all.
Jace Oh wow. You also had a family connection to Ridley Road, is that correct, through your parents’ families who had lived in the area, is that right?
Sarah Yes. So Ridley Road is sort of in the north east of London, and it’s an incredible melting pot of people and cultures and there’s lots of different immigrant communities there and my dad’s family are Persian, from Iran. And when they came to London, they lived near Ridley Road in Stamford Hill, which is quite a predominately Jewish area. And my mom’s side of the family were Londoners born and bred, and they lived nearby in Tottenham. So Ridley Road is a market street with lots of different. I mean, it’s still buzzing, now, it’s all different communities are there, and both my grandmas probably shopped for their groceries on this market street. And, you know, just know that they from completely different worlds that they would be united. And I would end up writing about this street.
Jace That’s amazing. You mentioned the eight year process to bring this to the screen…so you brought the project to executive producer Nicola Shindler, with whom you’d previously worked as an actor. What was Nicola’s reaction to Ridley Road and why did it take eight years to reach fruition?
Sarah Well, Nicola is a very instinctive producer, and I mean, she’s created such incredible work. It’s A Sin recently and Queer As Folk back in the day, and really important stories, as well as really entertaining stories. And she has this sort of sixth sense for something that would really sort of work as a story first and foremost Selling it, you know, is another matter. But she knew it could work as a story because it’s such a gripping, gripping slice of history. And also, I wanted to do this infiltration story through the eyes of a young Jewish girl. And we just went through lots of rounds of trying to persuade people to make it. And I think, you know, eight years ago, we were in a very different political, cultural landscape where fascism and the far right felt like something from the past. And the only silver lining of where we see in America and in Europe and even in India and all over the world, which is this sort of rise in this populist rhetoric and the sort of strongman approval or, you know, embrace. The silver lining for us was that the themes of this show became more and more relevant as people started to ask questions about what was happening and why these patterns were forming. And people were asking the question you know, what, are we inherently nasty? We we. Is there something about the human condition? Because I think we were on an upward trajectory of progress and now look at voting patterns and anti-immigrant rhetoric. And so the show helps to really look at history because so many clues of the present are contained in the past. And the truth was, we like to think that Britain was on the right side of history and that it was it was a heroic force and that Hitler and Naziism died in the bunker. But the story shows that actually as late as 1962, they were organized rallies in Trafalgar Square, where men could wave swastikas and organize marches deliberately through Jewish areas with swastikas and Nazi slogans. And it was completely legal. There was nothing anyone could do to stop it.
Colin Jordan We happen to live in a country that prides its freedom of speech, so you can shout and scream all you want. But the truth is the truth. They don’t want to you to say it. They don’t want you to name it. They don’t want you to call it what it is. The purge of the white man. The robbery of the white race, and they’re happy to use the white man for the world’s wars, to return home abused and humiliated. But they don’t want you to know this, but know it.
Sarah The police were actually protecting them under freedom of speech, so they had police protection and so Jewish communities and immigrant other immigrant groups, minority groups would form together to form this anti-fascist movement, and they would protest at this presence and often they would be arrested themselves. And it’s only with new legislation, the Hate Speech Act, Race Relations Act, that Nazi imagery and language became illegal. So it really poses the question about freedom of speech, safety, safe spaces, all the stuff that we’re kind of grappling with now. When you do have unbridled freedom of speech, you can get what we see in 1962 and the vigilante groups, because these were largely ex-servicemen. These men and women who formed the 62 Group, they called themselves the Sixty-Two, who used espionage techniques, infiltration techniques to try and understand where these groups were meeting. The Nazi groups were meeting and try to organize themselves so that they could fight them off and Colin Jordan, who was the head of this neo-Nazi movement, the National Socialist movement. It was a very organized group. I mean, interestingly, when the show came out, even though it was very well received, some critics accused the show of exaggerating. They said it wasn’t that bad. You know, it wasn’t, she’s trying to make out that we were a fascist country and we were not. Well, this is a man who was prosecuted and charged with setting up a paramilitary force — that’s an armed, uniformed, trained army that he had, which the show looks at, and he ended up getting nine months in prison. That was it. So to answer your question on the journey of it, I think it just was, it was viewed as very niche as sort of Jewish resistance. There haven’t been really Jewish leads, Jewish dramas on British television. There’s still a lot of issues on anti-Semitism in the UK. It’s a very different experience being a Jew in the U.K. than it is in America. And and and just its themes just became more and more relevant, sadly.
Jace I mean, it’s pretty scary actually watching it in 2022 to see just how contemporary and modern and, as you say, relevant it is to today. There are inherent tensions within Ridley Road because it is a mash up of different genre types. It starts as a domestic drama. It shifts into a romantic drama, then a salon workplace drama before becoming a high-stakes political thriller. How did you navigate those genres switches when writing the scripts?
Sarah I tend not to think about genre. I talk about with female writer friends. I think genre sometimes can be intimidating because it’s normally the domain of men. Maybe, you know, you have you sort of have a side genre of like chick lit or chick, you know, female friendly or women’s comedy. So genre is not a concept that I am sit in, it’s story and character. And it was always a thriller, so it had to have had to deliver on suspense, it had to deliver on tension. But when you look at a woman’s life, a young woman’s life, just tapping into the truth of who she was, you cannot not write about when you’re telling a truthful story about a woman in 1962, you cannot not write about the the constraints of her family, the constraints of her community. She grew up in a suburb of Manchester, which was, you know, probably wouldn’t have left Manchester and would have married who she was told to marry and had the life she was expected to. So even leaving that was a transgression. And so the set, the thriller, I guess, was more of a North Star. But when you are true to the period, then then the genre, I guess, will just sort of reveal itself, if that makes sense.
Jace That does make sense. I want to dig a little deeper into the use of archival footage from the 1960s, which I love here, which is mixed in with sort of filmic elements shot for the show itself. Where did the idea come from to blend the two together, and does it add an element of verisimilitude to Ridley Road?
Sarah I’d found the footage of the rally on an old Pathé archive, and I’d written into the script that we should use it because it it really speaks for itself. How shocking it is to see this. And Lisa our director and Nicola and Betts and our producer, they they sort of ran with it and and found so much more that we actually blended. And oftentimes I wouldn’t know what an archive and what had been us recreating it. And and I think when you’re dealing with a historical piece, particularly historical fiction, where there are elements that are fictionalized, it’s just to condense the subject matter really and to tell the story effectively. It was really effective in putting you back into that into that space, particularly to the protest in Trafalgar Square, which just blows people’s mind that that happened not too long ago.
Jace I mean, so you’re basing this on Jo’s novel, but it is inspired by actual events. There are real life figures like Rory Kinnear as Colin Jordan in the mix here. Is there an added pressure when you’re mixing fact and fiction? How do you look at things like dramatic license within the context of telling a bigger story about the 62 Group?
Sarah It’s a tricky one, and especially when you’re dealing with trauma, you know, a painful history, you really don’t want to be glorifying or exploiting pain. And there’s been lots of conversation on using the Holocaust and using that trauma for entertainment. And so I actually was quite sparing on the horrors of it and tried to focus more on really. The overall arc of the story is one of hope and success because without giving too much away, the you know, the show captures the great contribution this group made to pushing this Party to the fringes of British politics. So it’s a tightrope to walk, but I think you have to, you know, it’s not a documentary. It’s not a historical book. It’s a piece of entertainment. And you see, if you don’t deliver on the entertaining factor and making it suspenseful and gripping, you actually lose your audience and then any noble aims you have of starting conversations or enlightening people about something go away. So your primary aim is to tell a good story. So there were certain moments that I certain elements that I did fictionalize. For example, Colin Jordan didn’t have any children in real life. And he has a son in Ridley Road, and that was very important to me because it humanized him because it a lot of these far-right members or parties, you know, they they’re not setting out to be villains of history, they’re setting out in their own logic, a plan and an action to better their children or their race or their world. And so when you humanize them, actually, you understand how they’re operating, which makes it more complicated. And that was a big, important thing for me because I’d seen a lot of caricatures of Nazi characters that very obviously is monstrous, zombified and robotic. And and that doesn’t really tell the story of why so many people at that time would be persuaded by these ideas. And one of the aims of the piece was to show how good people can be convinced if bad ideas and how good people can come to very, very dangerous, sometimes murderous, conclusions. And so whenever I fictionalized, I have to ask myself, like, how is this further deepening and furthering the story? And once you make that commitment, then there’s a weird loyalty that emerges when you write scripts, a loyalty to the story and you become you end up working within your own logic. And that’s something the character might’ve done in real life that actually is illogical and in the framework of your own story.
Jace Before this next question, a brief word from our sponsors…
Jace I want to dig at the the issue of housing raised in Ridley Road. Vivienne arrives in London and tries to find a place to live. There’s this amazing shot of her walking past these rundown houses, some of which are being torn down to build tower blocks. What were you trying to say here about the housing crisis in Britain?
Sarah I’m so glad you asked about that, because that was a big thing for me in in forming and structuring show. I think housing as a concept is so overlooked when we are analyzing our culture, when we’re analyzing economic disparity, even issues on racial injustice, poverty, homelessness. It all comes to housing and how we view housing. I mean, I could talk for hours about why property becoming an asset rather than a human right has distorted our society. But but in terms of the show, you see in 1962, a huge shift in social housing was taking place where these old sort of Victorian slum dwellings, which had been built during the industrial revolution, were regarded as not fit for purpose. And so they were demolished and these high-rises were built, which were pitched as streets in the sky, these pavements going up made of brick, brutalist style architecture. And so what that did was A, sort of dismantle communities that had been long established. And one of my characters, Nette, is this landlady who has been living for 60 years on this street, which is literally taken down. And when you put a shift in housing with a new wave of immigration because we opened up immigration to the Commonwealth, we encouraged people from the West Indies, from India to come and take low paid jobs in transport and health care. When you put that together, you can you can tap into the psyche of the time, which was huge change, not least just the noise and the mess of construction, which I tried to keep alive in every episode. And you know, you take someone like Nettie, a an old age pensioner who survived two wars and it just demolish her house and you put her in a flat, a high rise. And it mirrors where we are now, we’re having a hue. We’ve got an accelerated shift in the culture. And people find it quite overwhelming and complex. And and so, so so so so the housing piece is quite a good, tangible anchor in understanding the relationship between space and thought.
Jace Ridley Road opens with a sequence that at first seems like it could be taken from any British period drama. We get these sweeping shots of grounds of a luxurious country estate, before revealing that the people we’re seeing in this playful singsong scene are Hitler-worshiping fascists.
Vivien Sweetheart, sweetheart, will you marry me?
Yes Lord, yes sir, at half past three.
Ice cakes, spices, soft parfee.
And we’ll have a wedding at half past three.
Colin Jordan Paul, where are you?
Paul Daddy’s coming.
Vivien Let’s tidy you up, darling. That’s it. Good boy.
Colin Wir kommen wieder.
Vivien Wir kommen wieder.
Paul We come again.
Jace What were you looking to achieve with this opening?
Sarah Again, I think it comes down to humanizing what we have been demonizing, which is the extreme world view of a racial ideology, which whether it’s against Jews, or black people or Mexicans or immigrants, it’s reductive ideology, which which explains the modern situation by blaming someone else. And that reductive ideology is present now. And it was present then, and lots of people are susceptible to these views. And I think the opening it was is shocking and it’s surprising. It also sets up the conceit of the show, which is that Vivien will become an infiltrator, and that’s where she is. But I think if I wanted to make familiar these characters, I wanted them. I wanted audience actually, not just to think, Oh, I know someone like that, but to actually think that at times has been me because you see the sea, you see thought it is very fluid. It’s more fluid than we like to believe it passes through us. Thoughts are formulated in our minds, and they confirmed when we speak out loud, which is why we actually to encourage more talk and not less, even the idea of never again. When you hear with in the anti-fascist, never again. Never again. Well, I think fascism, in whatever form they face, it will always be present. It’s part of the challenge of protecting our democracy, understanding how fragile our democracy is and and and protecting the body politic. We are we are a body that needs look being looked after, whether that’s housing with us, health care, whether that’s education, keeping it strong, keeping it alert, keeping it healthy with information and discourse. And the opening, I guess, is just a sort of microcosm of, oh, even this pretty and idyllic English countryside scene could harbor very dark, dangerous views.
Jace I mean, it is sort of the political version of a David Lynch film that it’s sort of the the in American terms of the white picket fence and the horror sort of lurking beneath this idyllic surface. The first episode is bookended by that Vivien and Colin scene this very confident and blond Vivien in a silk slip with Colin and his son, and the final scene, which is the first meeting where Vivien is shaking with nerves so badly that she has to sit on her hands. When in the writing process, did you know that these two images would bookend episode one?
Sarah Hmm. I think I knew I knew the way I write. I have to know where I am and if I haven’t got my ending, I can’t begin. So I knew I wanted her in that space, and I knew I wanted to do it. I knew I wanted her to begin in Manchester. And sometimes as a writer, it’s very useful to give yourself these tentpoles, and it’s actually very good if you have absolutely no idea how you get from A to B because the drama is that it is in that tangle and if you can’t, you don’t. Sometimes I couldn’t possibly know how he I was going to move forward. And that’s that’s where the right, that’s where the dramatization comes in, I guess, is you put these impossible positions and you try and figure out the truth of how you would if you if if that were you, what would you do and what would you use? And you see, I didn’t want to use I I’m loathe in these a lot of thrillers I see with female protagonists out of nowhere, that’s leading a high kick. And that becomes all sassy. I just got this skeleton I’m aware of. Where’s that from? And she didn’t have those skills. And often women don’t have those skills. They certainly don’t have violence or the threat of violence to use. So what do they have? Well, she is a hairdresser. Hairdressers are very good with people, they’re very good at making people feel relaxed. They’re very good at listening. She’s a young girl. She’s attractive. She uses that. And so it was using and even the hairdressing became a tool for her disguise. She understood she’s she’s bleaching her hair, which was sort of a ritual and all these feminine arts, which are often undermined on screen or just not explored. I wanted them to become her tools, her weapons that she utilizes to try to combat these fascists.
Jace This is, of course, set during the 1960s, Vivien’s eyes are open to a whole new world that’s unfolding in the groovy capital. She gets a job at a Soho hairdressers, and I love all of the scenes at the salon with Vivien and Tamzin Outhwaite’s Barbara.
Vivien Thank you for a great day, Barbara.
Barbara You enjoyed yourself?
Barbara If it’s boy trouble, let me tell you now, he’s no good for ya. Experts in human behavior, hairdressers. We can be anybody to anyone, you’ll see. Oh, let them take you out, let them treat you nice, but whatever you do, don’t let them crawl up in there. Like squatters, men. Once they’re in, there’s no getting them out.
Jace How does the salon give Vivien entry to a wider and more vivid world than the one she’s been living in?
Sarah The hairdressing, and this was in Jo’s book which I really wanted to preserve was such a crucial part of who she was and the skills she gets from, from being a hairdresser and understanding that cut women and she connects, she can connect with people very quickly. But it’s also, you know, it’s Soho. It was it. I would say it was popping because the Swinging Sixties that we had been immortalized in the culture that was much later in the decade. But it was certainly, you know, it was certainly moving. And. And so she she’s, you know, her mind is blown with these people that are passing through and characters that she meets and and conversations she overhears. And in one episode, one of the girls writes the pill. You know, the pill was coming in and tells you all about that. So it’s really she gets an education in in in what’s happening around her. It kind of. She’s being modernized through the through the salon. And as anyone knows, you know, salon life is is a masterclass and make.
Jace I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about the great Rita Tushingham, whom we mentioned earlier. She, of course, is herself a major symbol of the 1960s in Britain, between A Taste of Honey, The Leather Boys, Dr. Zhivago. What did Rita bring to the role of Nettie and was her casting a knowing wink to her being an icon of the 1960s?
Sarah Maybe, but, you know, we were just thrilled that she wanted to come and play her, and I won’t give too much away, but there’s you never really know which way she’s going to go. And I think Rita, you know, she just bought a lot of tension and pain, actually. Her character has lost three sons in the war, and she makes a speech at the end, which still gives me shivers when I watch it. And it was just words very blessed to have such such a legendary actress giving us a bit of her magic.
Jace How challenging was it to find the right actor for Vivien and what did Agnes O’Casey manage to capture about Vivien that landed her the role it was?
Sarah It was a long search. It was a hard search because she had to have the naivete and vulnerability, because you have to feel very worried for her of her going into this other world and not knowing how she’s going to get about. But she also had to have a kind of cool, steely nerve that develops, and a bravery that was always there, but was sort of untapped and when I saw Aggie’s tape, I knew it was her because she captured that. But, you know, because she was straight out of drama school, you know, you do worry if they’re going to be able to sustain just the the grueling challenge of a shoot. It’s long hours, it’s a huge toll on you physically, emotionally. We were shooting in peak COVID, so it was like hazmat suits and total isolation, so she was in Manchester on her own. She couldn’t socialize with anyone, she couldn’t talk to anyone, which is all the fun of being on a set and all the support you need. And she was incredible in keeping morale up. like she was. She was like an old pro, just just keeping it about the work and keeping positive and grateful and and so curious about the character in the world. And I’m just really proud of her and really, really grateful for what she contributed.
Jace We are, of course, living in a time of immense uncertainty between the ongoing pandemic, political upheaval, war in Europe, etc.. What do you hope that viewers take away from Ridley Road? Is there a sense that its message is ultimately one of hope rather than despair?
Sarah I hope so. I hope so. I think where there is life, there is hope. What are we going to do? You know, what are you going to do? Just give up. I mean, it’s always hard. There’s never a period in history where people just look trauma. Well, I think everything’s fine. You know what a great time to be. You know, there’s always some unprecedented challenge. There’s there’s there’s plenty to be extremely grateful for and excited about. And the 62, you know, they the sacrifices they made, a lot of their contribution was completely anonymous. The infiltrators had aliases, and if they ever got out, they would disappear. Move to India, move to South America, never to be heard of again. So it’s real, selfless sacrifice. So this idea of a greater cause to this idea that we we do what we can in the life that we have and we and we can make progress and ultimately where the road is love story. It’s a romance and that always lives. Love will always be here. And while we can be confused or dismayed or outraged atrocities, we we should equally be. So amazed by the capacity for love. And if I’m ever having a dark moment, I just I try and tap into all the love the around the world. That’s just that’s just buzzing. That’s that’s that we won’t see on the news, just the love front between friends, between couples, between parents, for their children, neighbors. It’s incredible. It’s it’s when you really tap into. It’s intoxicating, and I’m very optimistic and hopeful. And I encourage others to be too.
Jace You split your time between acting and writing. How do you decide which will get prominence within your life at any given time?
Sarah I mean, to be honest, I’m pretty I’m pretty much a full time screenwriter, and that’s just just how my career sort of evolved and also having young children and and really enjoying being more present with them and ratings. Very good. You need to have young children. Right. When they’re at school and I can drop them off and pick them up and put them to bed. And I don’t have a nanny and think so. So writing is is is really I’m really enjoying where I’m at with that. But then I did act in this show. With that, I wrote with Steve Coogan called Chivalry, which will be out in the UK in a couple of weeks. And I and I did enjoy being back on set being an actor. But but I always come back to what your contribution is, and I think I make a good contribution being a writer as good writing is quite hard to come by and I’m in awe of a lot of actresses and a lot of actors just think how, how are they doing that? They’re incredible. But if you know the right part comes along and then then I’ll always I’ll always love being on set and acting.
Jace Sarah Solemani, thank you so very much.
Sarah Thank you so much.
Jace Coming up next on MASTERPIECE, our summer of Mystery! expands to a full half-year of crime dramas.
Miss Scott Didn’t expect to see you tonight?
Geordie I got jilted by a frisky vicar. What’s your excuse?
Miss Scott Ah new diktat from Captain Efficiency. ‘The filing system is incompatible with modern policing methods’. He’s changing everything!
Geordie And he’ll change it back again once he realizes the old way’s the best. Anything else happening?
Miss Scott Actually, someone heard a woman scream in Grantchester. Police attended the address but failed to apprehend the offending mouse. Even the criminals can’t be bothered to work in this heat.
Jace We’ll have interviews with the cast and crew of many of your favorite returning shows — and new series besides! — here on the podcast in the months ahead.
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob, and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisehba Ittoop is our editor. The executive produce of MASTERPIECE is Susanne Simpson.
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