Heart Of Darkness
Ridley Road is a new sixties-set BBC drama series starring this Sunday and here’s its writer and executive producer Sarah Solemani talking about it…
Please could you tell us what Ridley Road is about?
Ridley Road is inspired by the true story of a revival of fascism and neo-Nazism in 1962 and a group of Jewish men and women who club together to form the 62 Group, which was an anti-fascist resistance movement. They tried to beat the fascists off the street and push them to the fringes of British politics, which they were successful in doing. Our show centres on a fictional character, Vivien, who gets roped into this underworld and goes on this crazy, mad, and brave adventure.
What research did you do around the era?
I did a tonne of research on this project. Jo Bloom, the novelist of the book Ridley Road, was a fantastic resource and she shared all the research she did for the book. We did a lot of interviews and lots of different things came up that informed the story. For example, housing was a massive topic that compounded race relations and the rise of the far right at that time because we had a lot of immigrants coming in from The Commonwealth. We gave them jobs that we didn’t want to do but we didn’t give them anywhere to live. There was still a very racist housing policy and landlords could turn people of colour or Jewish people away from housing.
I remember telling Nicola Shindler, “I think this show is about housing”. She said, “Great, but can you make it sexy?”. You do all the research, and you do all the interviews, and you find all the interesting and clever bits but then you just have to park them. Any time I found a clever bit of research that I put in, it would jump out and I’d have to lose it. So, it’s about doing all the homework and then burying it so that you’re really honouring the story and the characters.
Why do you think this story is an important one to tell?
I think this story is an important one to tell because the dilemma of 1962 is still one that we’re grappling with now. Which is, why people are drawn to the far right? What is it about that ideology and rhetoric that is still appealing, so many years on? Not just in England, but in America, Eastern Europe, India, Brazil, it’s something that has had a surge of popularity. It isn’t enough to identify these people as monsters or stupid. We have to work a bit harder in understanding the logic behind this worldview.
One of my guiding principles with the show was how to tell a story about how good people are convinced of bad ideas. Or how good people can come to bad conclusions, which is pointing at the other and blaming them for everything that’s wrong with your way of life. Clinging onto this nostalgic view of how things were, the culture that has been lost, an identity that has been robbed. Once we can really get into that psyche then I think we’ll understand things much better now. It was about trying to humanise everyone and sitting in the grey area. It’s not just heroes and villains but it’s an honest portrait of how good people can come to bad conclusions.
You spoke about this resurgence not just happening in the UK, but in countries all around the world, why do you think the series will have an international appeal?
I think the series will have an international appeal because we are seeing this pattern of thought and behaviour everywhere around the world. One of the things that I learned through my research was that life gets increasingly more complex as we live in a more globalised world with lots of complex phenomena and interconnectivity. But fascists and the far right offer a simplified way of understanding quite complex things by arguing that their culture is at risk from an alien foreign or illegal invasion. It’s that simplicity that appeals to a lot of people. It’s emotional, there can be an intellectual justification for it.
Colin Jordan, who was leader of the National Socialist Movement went to Cambridge, he was a teacher in a school, he had a pseudo-academic approach to this outlook and we’re seeing that happen across the world. It’s a real threat to be alert to. We wanted to tell a really entertaining, gripping, sexy, thriller story that also resonates with what is happening in the here and now.
The 62 Group in the series are based on the real group. Do you feel like they are the mirror image of the NSM?
There was a lot of controversy at the time about the tactics of the 62 Group because they were not afraid to use violence. They would go to these meetings and marches and punch, fight, and cause destruction. A lot of them were ex-servicemen who had fought in the war, but when they came home, there were swastikas on the street because of freedom of speech laws. This was before the hate speech or race relations action which slightly changed how you could spout off certain views. But back then, fascists were deliberately marching in Jewish areas, they had swastikas on Trafalgar Square and the police had to protect them. It was actually the anti-fascists that got arrested, which we depict in our show.
The logic of the 62 Group was, ‘Well if the law isn’t on our side and we’re getting beaten while fascists are calling for our demise and destruction, then we have to physically protect ourselves and scare them away’. This tactic caused controversy within the Jewish community as well, especially amongst the elders who argued, ‘You’re going to their level, this is not who we are, you’re dragging us through the mud, you’re sullying our reputation’.
It’s like the conversation you have in America with Trump supporters: ‘They go low, we go high’. It’s an existential question: at what point do you pick up your sword and defend your life? These are the stakes the 62 Group were dealing with. I wanted to move away from hero, villain archetypes and the 62 Group aren’t perfect, they are problematic. Soly, Eddie Marsan’s character, is a bit of a wheeler dealer. He’s done problematic things, but his heart is in the right place, and he believes in this cause. It was important for me to put those characters in the grey area. Even Vivien herself uses very unsavoury or controversial tactics to get what she needs to succeed. That was really appealing to me as a storyteller.
What are you most proud of with the production?
I am so proud of this production. I can’t tell you the biblical style obstacles and hurdles that were thrown our way. Everything from Covid, the budget of the production, but it also emotionally impacted every single person. Crew members and actors lost loved ones during the filming of this. They had to cope with their own suffering and grief. We lost locations. The number of hurdles that were thrown at us and we overcame them because we worked as a team to serve this story and get this story out there. It’s personal to every single person who lent their skill and talent onto the production. I’m just so proud of how everyone came together and achieved the miraculous.
Do you think the personal impact that it’s had on so many people involved translates to the screen?
You hope as a screenwriter that everything you’re feeling is on the screen and I’m feeling it. All the actors took the scripts and added their own story, their own pain and all these different levels. But also, lots of humour and light. Eddie Marsan added these wonderful, improvised flourishes that just bring Soly to life. That was important, we’re not just banging our audience on the head with these noble themes and big ideas, we’re also bringing life to it and life is humorous and there’s empathy for everyone. You even feel for Colin Jordan, you feel for his son and it’s all the feels. That’s what the actors have brought to it which I’m so thankful and grateful for.
You’ve worked with RED Production Company and Nicola Shindler before, why did you want to work with them on Ridley Road?
I had a great time with Nicola Shindler and RED when I worked as an actress on The Five. I loved their vibe, and I loved the way they worked. While I was filming The Five, I read Ridley Road and I brought it to Nicola because I thought it would be a great TV show. I knew it would be a hard sell because period pieces are quite hard to get green lit. But Nicola totally got it and we went to the BBC. It was seven years before we finally got the go-ahead and she just stuck with it. We kept working and re-writing. Nicola is one of the most exceptional collaborators I’ve ever worked with. In terms of creative instincts, she’s bang on. But also on leadership, just leading teams of people, she’s been a real inspiration to me in terms of how I want to run my own shows.
How has it been working with such a brilliant cast?
The cast is incredible. I had many of them in mind, while I was writing the characters. Rory Kinnear, Eddie Marsan, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Tamzin Outhwaite, Sam Spiro…I saw these actors as I was writing, so for them to want to do it was brilliant. Then, of course Agnes O’Casey, our Vivien. We had a long search trying to find the right girl. When we saw her tapes, her connection to the material, the character and Vivien’s journey just blew us all away. Every time I watched the rushes I was so impressed with the talent on the screen, which is everything.
What are you hoping audiences take away from the show?
Your first call of duty as a screenwriter is to write something entertaining. I hope audiences feel like they’ve had four great hours of brilliant, captivating and suspenseful drama. If, after that, it gives them something to think about, reflect on, question or sparks any type of conversation, I feel like that’s a job well done.
Why should people watch Ridley Road?
I think people should watch Ridley Road because it’s an exhilarating, suspenseful, sexy journey into a slice of British history that very few people know about. It’s a scary story but ultimately, it’s one of triumph and hope. Even though we have this close relationship with fascism we also have a very close relationship of defeating it and the triumph of working people getting together and conquering it.
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Heart Of Darkness Ridley Road is a new sixties-set BBC drama series starring this Sunday and here’s its writer and executive producer Sarah Solemani talking about it… Please could you tell us what Ridley Road is about? Ridley Road is inspired by the true story of a revival of fascism and neo-Nazism in 1962 and
The post Writer and Executive Producer Sarah Solemani Talks Ridley Road Drama Series appeared first on TRIPWIRE MAGAZINE.Read MoreTRIPWIRE MAGAZINE