“Ridley Road” reviewed

JVL Introduction

Comparing the screen version with Jo Bloom’s 2014 novel, JVL member Deborah Maccoby shows, in a review on Amazon reproduced below, how the antisemitism issue was weaponised and turned into propaganda during the transition from book to TV series.

Here she provides a brief guide to how the TV series was received. It is followed by her review.

The TV series

The recent BBC1 series “Ridley Road” – which is centred on a militant Jewish group, the “‘62 Group”, in ‘60s London, fighting a neo-Nazi movement led by the real-life figure of Colin Jordan – was favourably received (albeit with some reservations) by the mainstream press, who drew comparisons with the antisemitism “crisis” of today.

The Guardian’s reviewer – while wishing the TV series “exhibited a bit more complexity and artistic refinement” — concluded that “it has the right story to tell – alas – in our current dark age”.

A four-star reviewer in the Independent commented: “The contemporary parallels are so near to the surface that there’s no need to lay them on too thickly”.

A feature writer in the Jewish Chronicle did lay them on thickly, claiming that “in the literature Colin Jordan and the fascists used, I recognised many of the ideas being recycled by the left after Jeremy Corbyn came to power”.

And Tracy-Ann Oberman, who plays a prominent role in “Ridley Road”, as the wife of the ‘62 Group’s leader, told Robert Peston on his ITV show: “As history has shown, Jewish communities have been caught in a pincer grip of any kind of extremist hard right or hard left”.

In contrast to the mainstream left in the Guardian and the Independent, the right-winger Peter Hitchens, writing in the Mail on Sunday, dared to point out that Colin Jordan – who in the TV series is a menacingly powerful character –was in reality a figure of fun who had hardly any followers. Hitchens focuses on “Ridley Road”’s extreme Remainer propaganda stance against Brexit, the implication of the TV series being that the British public is riddled with fascism and racism.

  You can buy the novel here.

And watch the TV series here.

2.0 out of 5 stars Chick Lit and Political Propaganda

Deboarah Maccoby, Amazon, reviewed in the United Kingdom on 29 October 2021

This can’t be called a good novel — its style is too flat and wooden and the characters too cardboard — but it has a strong narrative drive and is more-or-less readable in a “chick lit” kind of way; hence two stars instead of one. There is a great emphasis on ‘60s hairstyles (the Jewish heroine, Vivien Epstein, is a highly-skilled hairdresser who finds work in a salon in Soho), on ‘60s clothes fashions and on the swooning adoration felt by Vivien for her elusive, mysterious boyfriend, Jack Morris.

The reason for Jack’s elusiveness and mysteriousness is that he has become an infiltrator into a neo-Nazi, fascist movement. Vivien moves from Manchester to London in order to find him (as well as to start a new and interesting life) and, in her quest for Jack (with whom she has exciting secret meetings), gets to know a militant Jewish vigilante organisation known as the “‘62 Group”, of which Jack is a member and which has been set up to engage in violent confrontations with the fascists.

I agree with the one-star Amazon reviewer who points out the “almost total absence of consideration for the morality of Jewish militants taking illegal (and violent) direct action”. I noticed only five points (in 300 pages) where this question is briefly considered, but (with evident authorial approval) dismissed: a member of the group “could see why some members of the Jewish community considered the group thuggish, but he still believed theirs was the best way to fight fascism” (p. 217) and Jack dismisses the “tired argument” that “anti-Semitism couldn’t be overcome through yobbish behaviour. That violence couldn’t be met with violence” (p. 283). There are also three references to the disapproval shown by Jack’s father, Bruce, towards the ‘62 Group (pp. 255, 283 and 288): “all Bruce wanted was for the Jews to go around quietly and not make a fuss” (p.283), thinks his son. In the TV series, I didn’t notice even this much discussion of the issue.

Vivien has another suitor, called Stevie, who is also a member of the ’62 Group, but comes over as a weakling who can’t cope with violence: “At the sound of a bottle smashing behind him, Stevie jumped, wanting to cry at the savagery of it all….he didn’t have the bottle for fighting and he never would”. No wonder Vivien rejects him for the heroically brave and violent Jack (personally, my sympathies are with Stevie).

There is no mention, in either the novel or the TV series, of comments made in a memoir by Gerald Ronson, who became the chief fund-raiser for the ‘62 Group: “I was beginning to think that being hooligans to fight hooligans wasn’t the smartest way we could fight the enemy”. Indeed, Ronson (himself a problematic figure who was given a one-year jail sentence for his part in the fraud scandal known as the Guinness Affair) doesn’t figure at all in either the book or the TV series. But in a note at the end of the novel, Jo Bloom explains: “I frequently distanced myself from the truth in order to serve the story”, adding that all the characters are fictitious.

Though it is sometimes described as an “adaptation” of the novel, the BBC series is only loosely based on the book. The novel is basically “chick lit”, with the ‘62 Group only as a backdrop to hairstyles, clothes, Vivien’s friendships with the other girls in the salon and her relationship with Jack. But the TV series doesn’t just “distance” itself “from the truth”; it comes over as political propaganda. The novel was published in 2014, before the UK’s antisemitism hysteria campaign – which has mixed up the far right with the left — got fully underway with the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership in 2015. The TV series creates an ominous atmosphere of British Jews being under great threat – an atmosphere that isn’t in the novel, where it is pointed out that the huge crowd attending a fascist rally in Trafalgar Square is mostly made up of protesting anti-fascists (p.68); when Jack, in his role as infiltrator, hands out fascist newspapers in the street, he encounters repugnance from the public (p.120).

(SPOILER ALERT: If you don’t want to know the endings of the novel and TV series, don’t read the following two paras)

In a major departure from the book, in the TV series Vivien herself dyes her hair blonde to become an infiltrator, even spending one night with Colin Jordan, the neo-Nazi leader. She is told by him: “We are everywhere”, insinuating that fascists are secretly all over Britain. In the book, Jordan (the only real-life figure in the book but one who doesn’t really appear as a character) lives in a nondescript, shabby house; in the TV series, he is a major character who lives in an impressive stately home, thus creating a sense of power, wealth and influence. At the end of the novel, Vivien and Jack get married and plan to settle in London. But at the end of the TV series, we see Vivien and Jack escaping on a plane bound for Tel Aviv; Vivien shows the flight attendant a German passport, which bears the name of Vivien’s cousin, Roza, who – in the first episode of the series – we learn is a Holocaust survivor whom Vivien’s parents have taken into their home. Vivien’s mother, in this first episode, is racked with guilt because she could have got other members of Roza’s family out, but didn’t realise the danger they were in. In the book, Vivien is an orphan and there is no reference to any cousin. The novel does briefly mention the Holocaust (p.293) but makes no mention of Israel.

The effect of this escape to Israel in the TV series is to convey a subliminal message that British Jews were potentially under threat in the 1960s of a second Holocaust from Jordan’s tiny group of fascists, and, by implication, are nowadays in the same position – but unlike Roza’s family, they can flee to the militant State of Israel.

In his book Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Antisemitism and the Abuse of History, Norman Finkelstein argues that outbreaks of antisemitism hysteria occur when Israel is under heightened international condemnation: “the purpose behind these periodic, meticulously orchestrated media extravaganzas is not to fight anti-Semitism but rather to exploit the historical suffering of Jews in order to immunize Israel against criticism.” The antisemitism hysteria campaign of recent years in the UK seems to have been partly driven by this need to exonerate Israel, even though the primary driver appears to have been fear of a Socialist Prime Minister. The BBC TV series of “Ridley Road” seems to me to be heavily influenced by this antisemitism hysteria and itself part of the ongoing campaign.


Comments (15)

  • Terence McGinity says:

    Thank goodness for this review. My estimation entirely. I thought I was alone. BBC is popping out propaganda dressed up as drama as also in the anti Russian series called Vigil. Not content with their non fiction dross they pile it on in distorted historical dramas like this one.

  • steve mitchell says:

    I watched the drama all the way through. It occured to me that the subject matter might be linked to the current situation regarding accusations of anti semitism in the Left. I was even more suspicious when a police drama set in Paris in 1900 was shown on BBC i player. The story was centred around antisemitism in France and the case of Dreyfus. When I read the comments about Norman Finkelsteins book I realised my instinct was perhaps right. In the media there are no comments to be found about antisemitism and the well founded suspicion that a foreign state is interfering in UK politics. The media ,however print comments accusing Jeremy Corbyn of being anti semitic. Indeed ,people with Left wing views are similarly accused despite years spent fighting racism in all its forms. I read a readers letter in Private Eye recently where Corbyn was described as antisemic. The writer quoted the EHRC report as proof. Nowhere in that report does it say he is an antisemite. Nor does it aver the Labour Party is institutionally racist. I have read PE all my adult life. Surely, they should not allow such comments which are lies to be published. The same applies to other publications. As I approach the end of my long life I no longer recognise the country I was born into during WW2. It is becoming a Orwellian nightmare. I can no longer tell the truth from fiction.

  • This review of the TV series seems to hit the target.

  • Rod says:

    I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who felt that the series was a kind of propaganda.

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    I havent read the book of Ridley Road, but taking the television series on its own merits, the key thing was – it had none. It was toe-curlingly awful, in its fantastically dopey plot lines (a nice Jewish home girl who, in the space of weeks, turns into a ‘secret agent’ with the most extraordinary escape skills – that scene balancing on the roof anyone?!), its script of stunning clunkiness, its spectacular miscasting (Rory Kinnear as an intelligent and anguished Colin Jordan, a million miles from Jordan’s real pathetic persona), and its embarrassingly Jewish-stereotype acting. And that is before we get onto its naked weaponisation of an extreme right wing 1960s antisemitism to make some cheap and totally unsubstantiated political points about the left in the Corbyn-led Labour era, as well as about the position of Jews as eternal victims.

    Much better, in fact, was the French police drama series mentioned by Steve Mitchell (though two series shown on BBC pretty much simultaneously where antisemitism seemed to be a major component added to the weird feeling of overkill that was extreme, even by BBC standards). As it happens, the French series wasn’t ‘about’ antisemitism: the Dreyfus scandal was key context, but itself was barely explored. Instead, it was a slow-burning, complex, often exhausting (and sometimes baffling) multi-layered examination of French policing at the turn of the twentieth century, which, each episode took its time reeling in the audience. Indeed, if it was concerned to home in on anything ‘eternal’, it chose as its theme the ‘dark state’ and government and police corruption. If you havent already, watch Police 1900, and give Ridley Road a very very wide berth!

  • Tony Booth says:

    Great review. Your last sentence sums it up. I am disappointed with the writer of the series Sarah Solemani who I think is a very good actor particularly in comedy. It would be good to hear in her words what she thought she was up to, but it does seem pretty obvious. After a few clicks I know that she campaigned for “anyone but Corbyn” in 2015. More yuk to swallow but we fight on.

  • John Bowley says:

    Intentionally I do not have a telly. I saw one episode of the BBC’s Ridley Road at a friend’s and I thought how separated it was from reality. I worked in London through the 1960s. I was wholly unaware of any antisemitism. Anti black racism was prominent. I once worked on a construction site near to Saint Paul’s Cathedral. It was the original Paternoster Development as correctly decried by Prince Charles. However, there were a few black shuttering carpenters working on it. The unpleasant builders foreman attempted to introduce a colour bar. I am proud to recall that the senior electrician, who I was working with, a young Irish Communist who was also a senior shop steward, vigorously opposed and defeated the colour bar in a manner worthy of Abraham Lincoln. I too recall from the time that the BBC version of the fascist leader in Ridley Road was that he was a never was. I recall all the racism then and now as being simply anti anyone dark skinned.

  • John Bowley says:

    Comments by others here have reminded me of a BBC Radio 3 presenter who is ultra tediously anti Communist and anti Russian. Whilst telling the story of the great composer Prokoviev’s later years, this BBC presenter wrote off all of the late works as rubbishy, when in truth most are beautiful and really joyful, and blamed waning health on state oppression when in truth Prokoviev never recovered from a serious fall down a grand stairway.

  • Philip Ward says:

    I am perplexed by some of the comments here. Perhaps it is true that the programme makers’ intentions were to draw parallels with “left-antisemitism”, but if so I’m not sure it was successful in that venture. Yes, it had contemporary resonances, but I think that to most ordinary viewers they would have been about the new rise of fascism and the far right and the threat of real racism and antisemitism. Most people in Britain don’t buy all the stuff about Corbyn and “Labour antisemitism” and I don’t think this programme would have altered their views. This isn’t to say the programme wasn’t clunky and full of clichés.

    I think the idea that “Paris Police 1900” isn’t “about” antisemitism is a mistaken. Yes, it takes the form of a whodunit and thriller and is about other things as well (the director says that includes violence against women and women with agency), but the backdrop is a period and struggle over the Dreyfus witch hunt and an antisemitism that was a strong, militant and vicious movement, with tentacles reaching into all the main organs of the French state – a completely realistic interpretation of the period.

    What I really disliked about Paris Police 1900 were the gruesome scenes where the camera was lingering ghoulishly on chopped-up women’s bodies. That was really foul and completely gratuitous.

  • Anti-fascist says:

    The whole series was tripe and the 62 Group as portrayed in Ridley Road bore not a semblance of relation to the real 62 Group.

    What was so errant in the serial was how it trivialised the real battle against antisemitism, racism and Jordan/Tyndall/Webster’s emergent nazis at the same time as bigging them up out of all proportion to the threat they genuinely presented.

    I cannot imagine former members of the 62 Group being overly impressed by the way the group was portrayed in Ridley Road.

  • rc says:

    The US is the most important major foreign power intervening in the UK, though its 5th column is gigantic, embracing almost the entire establishment’ (establishments?). Pompeo’s ominous threat against the LP under Corby seems to have been forgotten’ but a single hint from such a major figure weighs a million times more heavily than bomb-scares against us (the JVL) a la Liverpool. And let us remember that Egypt is a site of international imperialist struggle as much as the UK – Blair was surely the first major figure uncritically, unconditional and almost fawningly to welcome the military coup by Sisi. The US sanctioned the UK because of its attempt to re-establish UK imperialism in its military aspect; yet Israel, even more aggressive, suffered no US sanction in spite of a far less pro-Zionist State Department (then compared with now).

  • Amanda Sebestyen says:

    Brilliant– just what I thought when I and my partner were shouting at the TV screen! And a friend who was among the first to research the far right in the 60s was infuriated by the elevation of Colin Jordan into an all-powerful threat; in reality Jordan was living in a decaying bedsitter in Notting Hill , not a stately home with a huge political office in town.

    The hairdos were the best thing, it is interesting to know that this applies to the original book as well. I too was concerned by the glamorisation of violence, and even more by receiving an email from a thoughtful (Labour member) friend who had clearly been totally snowed by the propaganda of Jews facing an imminent existential threat in the UK . We have a mountain of rubbish to climb.

  • [JVL web says: This far exceeds our normal 300-word limit for comments, but we are making an exception for it as it adds substantively both to our knowledge of the background to “Ridley Road” and to the discussion of the issues Deborah Maccoby has raised in her review.]

    I had mixed feelings about Ridley Road. Having read the book several years ago, had some conversations with the author when she was writing it, and having known various people who were part of the 62 Group I actually appreciated the book more than Deborah Maccoby, and read it before the so-called “crisis of antisemitism in the Labour party”.

    Those 62 group members I knew personally, or knew of through their relatives, ranged from Communists (at the time) through to apolitical to right-wing Zionist. Some of them had earlier been in the 43 Group that physically broke up fascist meetings in the late 1940s, and had a more considerable involvement from Jewish Communist Party/Young Communist League members.

    The general politics of the 62 Group members I knew personally or by association, varied greatly, though all were completely dedicated anti-fascists, and overwhelmingly working class. And to be on the Zionist right wing in 1962 (before the 1967 war and subsequent occupation) is certainly different from being on the Zionist Right in 2021 when, as we know some of those active today in that sphere have no qualms about lining up with EDL and Britain First members on Islamophobic protests. The right wing Zionists I knew of of that time would physically confront fascists with glee and have no truck with them at all politically.

    I know that some members of the 62 Group did wider anti-racist work. Some of them did a very thorough ambush of a fascist father and son in Stoke Newington who were carrying out regular harassment of a Black family in the neighbourhood. It put them off further acts of harassment, and left them physically unable to do almost anything for a while. I also know that some 62 Group members were frequently involved in helping to steward events of anti-racist/anti-apartheid/anti-colonialist political initiatives in the 1960s/early 1970s.

    None of that came across in the BBC drama.

    The drama version departed from the book in several significant ways, but nevertheless I recognised with familiarity its portrayal of several conversations, mannerisms etc, alongside more exaggerated examples and stereotypes. I was a young child growing up in Hackney in the 1960s. My grandparents lived in a basement flat just behind Ridley Road and I spent a lot of time with them there in that period. My mum worked then in the typing-pool at a factory on Ridley Road, at the Dalston Lane end, and she endured frequent, explicit, fascist antisemitism from some factory workers there, which she remember to this day (she’s 93) as if it happened yesterday. She also remembers how her friends in the typing pool supported her when she confronted the antisemites among the factory workers.

    There definitely were explicit attempts in the TV-drama version to conflate the words “Jewish” and “Zionist” which jolted me when I watched it, and left me wondering who was responsible for infiltrating that into the final script.

    At the same time I am aware that many fascists of that period, with fundamentally antisemitic worldviews, sometimes used “Zionist” and “Jewish” interchangeably. Some still do. They viewed Zionism/Israel as an aspect of “Jewish power” and railed against Jews in general.

    Leaders of the fascist groups of the 1950s/60s were thoroughly schooled in Nazi antisemitism centred on a belief in “Jewish conspiracy”. The group that split from Colin Jordan and created the National Front in 1967 (such as John Tyndall, Martin Webster et al) did not replace antisemitism with anti-Black racism. Rather, they incorporated their anti-Black racism and racism against post-war immigrants into that over-arching conspiracy theory and targeted street violence against Black and Asian immigrant communities. But the higher you went int eh national Front hierarchy the more you were exposed to arguments that blamed Jews for “bringing immigrants to Britain” as a plot to destroy the “white race” with multiculturalism – an early version of the “Great Replacement Theory” that fascists still promote today.

    While it is true that, today, many far right groups, especially in Western Europe, focus more attention on Muslims, Roma, refugees, and publicly love and admire Israel’s Islamophobia, they still include many who subscribe to core antisemitism. Outside of Western Europe, in central/Eastern Europe, southern Europe, and in America, many far right groups continue to be fundamentally antisemitic and a number of them marry that with a very right-wing form of anti-Zionism. It is important for people on the left to be aware of, recognise, and completely opposed to, that right wing form of anti-Zionism that stems from antisemitism.

  • Rory Allen says:

    I am old enough to (just about) remember Colin Jordan and his antics. As I recall, a strong theme of his propaganda was anti-immigrant, specifically anti-black, hate speech; in fact it was probably more appealing to his followers than his antisemitism. Jordan can be seen as a precursor to Enoch Powell and his “Rivers of blood” ranting and via Powell, to Farage and others on today’s far right. These, however, have learned from Jordan’s failures that racism and xenophobia have to be exploited more subtly.

    Little of the anti-immigrant, anti-black line came across in Ridley Road. The background music with its urgent pulse-beat was presumably intended to make us feel that Jordan and his gang was a murderous threat to the Jewish community; little was said about the Windrush generation. I have noticed before that unconditional supporters of the Israeli government are at best lukewarm towards the Black Lives Matter movement; in Melanie Phillips’ case, this shades into actual hostility. Perhaps there is a fear that awareness of racism against people of colour might lead to an association of ideas with apartheid, and with the condition of Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories. And that is the real lesson to be taken from the campaign against Corbyn, in my opinion.

  • Tim Barlow says:

    Glad to see this article, though a few days after publication. Reflects my thoughts entirely about this dog turd of a series. The biggest howlers were the anachronisms that were obvious to anyone over 40 (Solemani is 39). The term Anti-Fascist (as used in the series) is a recent invention, imported from the US and their Antifa movement. People didn’t talk like that then. Neither did they wear denim shirts or have Zippo lighters, as were the case with Stevie’s character, but which are reassuringly familiar totems with young people today. Absolutely predictable and fitting that anti-Corbyn hysteric Tracy-Ann Oberman would finally find some work with this excrement. As others have pointed out, BBC drama is becoming a vehicle (particularly on Sunday nights) for ham-fisted political “activism” and propaganda masquerading as drama.

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