Activist state

PBS’s ‘Ridley Road’ teaches America lessons from ’60s London


This image released by PBS shows Jack Morris in a scene from “Ridley Road,” a four-part series that debuts in the United States May 1 on PBS’ “Masterpiece.” (Matt Squire/PBS via AP)


It took Sarah Soleman eight long years to get a murky slice of Britain’s post-WWII history from the pages of a book to our television screens.

She had been impressed by Jo Bloom’s 2014 novel Ridley Road about an underground Jewish-led anti-fascist resistance movement in 1960s London. But turning it into a series was difficult at first.

“He was rejected everywhere. Nobody wanted to do it. It was very niche,” she explained. Then two things happened: Brexit in England and Donald Trump in the United States. Suddenly, nativist lurches in democracies weren’t so niche anymore.

“I just had to be relentless to push him. And I’m glad I did, because, in fact, it reveals a lot about the country when it comes out,” said the English actor, writer and activist.

“Ridley Road,” a four-part series that debuts in the US May 1 on PBS’s “Masterpiece,” takes viewers to a part of British history they may not have known. In the early 1960s, members of the fascist National Socialist Movement held rallies in London, waving swastikas and demanding that leaders “liberate Britain from Jewish control”.

“We like to think we’re on the right side of history,” said Soleman, who grew up in London with an Iranian father and a Northern Irish mother. “We like to think of history as good guys and bad guys. And we were the good guys and Hitler was a bad guy and he died in the bunker and that was the end. And that’s not true.

“Ridley Road” – set in the 1960s, a multicultural thoroughfare in north-east London – centers on an unconventional heroine, a young Jewish hairdresser who infiltrates the neo-Nazi movement. Although his story may be fictional, the story of fascists fighting anti-fascists on the streets of London is not.

“I think this series just reminds us that we are constantly fighting against fascism, Nazism and neo-Nazism. I think the show is very relevant because it reminds us that this continues,” said Susanne Simpson, executive producer of “Masterpiece”.

“It’s a slice of history that I certainly didn’t know had happened in Britain, and I don’t think many people had known about it. But it’s true today. We see it happening in the United States and we see it all over the world. And I think the question Sarah was asking with the show was, ‘What are we going to do about it?’ ”

Although set during what is considered the fun and liberation of the Swinging Sixties, the series explores how fascism can take hold. In the case of England, the rise of big business disrupting high street mom-and-pop stores, an influx of foreign workers to rebuild post-war Britain, and the bulldozing of houses to make skyscrapers. sky all played a role. Some vulnerable people have become sensitive to the slogan “Bring our country back”.

“No one is claiming to be a villain in the story. Everyone leaves thinking they’re doing the best they can at the moment they’re in. So he’s trying to humanize why working-class white workers are sensitive and vulnerable. far-right views,” Soleman said.

The anti-fascists – working without government support – used their heavy-handed and espionage techniques such as wiretapping and infiltration to disrupt the National Socialist movement, which was behind the synagogue burnings. Often the anti-fascists were former Jewish servicemen who had fought the Nazis abroad.

“They had been at war and they had only returned to find Nazis on their doorstep. So in their eyes, it was muscle against muscle, an eye for an eye. There was no other option,” Soleman said. “It’s a remarkable story of hope and sacrifice.”

The chapter of British history might have seemed very dusty and alien to Americans until 2017, when hundreds of white nationalists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, shouting “Jews won’t replace us!” Suddenly, “Take Our Country Back” wasn’t far from other nativist slogans like “Make America Great Again”.

The series emphasizes that pluralist democracies must be actively protected and that freedom is a privilege that must not be passively given up. As one Jewish leader put it: “An anti-fascist fights. An anti-fascist yes. Still, Soleman says there are plenty of ways to do this.

“I’m very cautious about telling people they need to do more because people are at capacity – they’re working more hours, not earning enough,” she said. “It’s not about shaming people into doing more. That is to say, a good antidote to being overwhelmed and a good antidote to despair is action.

Soleman, who studied politics at Cambridge University and follows resistance movements around the world, said even small acts – demonstrating, signing petitions, writing letters – can help an individual feel useful .

“When you get up, when you see something happen in a public space, you actually become revitalized, you’ll feel less depressed, you’ll feel less overwhelmed,” she said.


Mark Kennedy is at