Taking A Leap Of Faith
Ridley Road is a new sixties-set BBC drama series starring this Sunday and here’s one of its cast Agnes O’Casey talking about it…
Tell us about Vivien…
Vivien is twenty-three and living in Manchester, in a loving but overbearing household. She is still unmarried and feels this mounting pressure of her parents’ wishes. With an arranged marriage looming, she is aware there is a role she must fill that she knows isn’t right for her. She’s a hairdresser, which is her pride and passion, but she is not being pushed – she feels like she’s stagnating. She sees the life that is laid out in front of her and she veers off that path and into the unknown. She takes a leap of faith and runs away to London. Initially she goes to follow Jack, the boy she loves, but she ends up discovering so much more about her own beliefs, her own determination and her own capability.
Did you do any research into Ridley Road?
I had no idea about this period in history – I knew about Oswald Mosley to a lesser extent. This whole period totally blanked me, so it was a huge shock to see the archive footage of swastikas and people ‘heil’ing in such recent history. It’s embarrassing to say but when I first read the script, I thought it was fictional. That’s one of the many reasons why it is so brilliant Sarah is writing about this now, this period of our history has been forgotten about.
There’s a really great book called We Fight Fascists by Daniel Sonabend about the 43 Group, who preceded the 62 Group, and it takes you through the war, leading up to the group’s formation, who the men were and how it happened. These men fought in the war for Britain and came back to realise that people in their own communities were anti-Semitic. They were normal men and women who took a stand and there is so much to be learnt from them.
I think the biggest shock for me was realising how smart and calculated people like Oswald Mosely and Colin Jordan were. Oswald Mosely is on record – he knew that there was going to be an economic depression after the war, so he waited until that happened before he started spreading his anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric because he knew that if people were desperate, they would be more likely to cling onto what he was saying. We see this time and time again.
Do you know what London was like in the 1960s?
I think London was very different for lots of people. There were huge disparities, as there are today. It was exciting for lots of people, there was lots going on – the fashion was changing, hair styles were changing – everything was so set and perfect then suddenly things start to become looser and freer. Hemlines were coming up, people were testing boundaries, the pill was more available. But at the same time there was huge economic depression, people were being displaced and kicked out of their homes.
I think there was a huge attempt to boost morale after the war. So, with that happening, the word Jewish was banned from broadcastings because they just wanted to forget. And I think that a lot of people didn’t really know what happened, the scale of the Holocaust was quite unknown because news wasn’t as immediate. A lot of people would have known through family members across Europe, but in Britain as a whole, there was an attempt to try and move on.
What drew you to Ridley Road?
When it first came up, I thought it was perfect. It’s so relevant for now, and it’s so much more than a ‘topical’ show – it’s so full of heart and humanity, what Sarah’s done is beautiful. This is my first job and the idea that my first job would be so perfectly in line with everything I believe in is a dream come true.
I was so drawn to Vivien as a character for so many reasons. She’s clever without realising she’s clever. She’s not particularly eloquent but she is truthful and principled, and you watch her on this journey as she discovers her own ability. She is so brave which is something I can’t say for myself – she makes split-second decisions and she’s always on the front foot, whereas I would probably mull over things for months!
Why is this an important story to tell?
I think it’s an important story to tell because we have seen so much polarisation among our communities, the echo chambers we inhabit mean people are becoming more and more radically right and drastically less empathetic. It’s far too easy to go down rabbit holes of misinformation.
There are brilliant storylines that explore this in Ridley Road, especially Rita Tushingham’s storyline, which I love. She plays a character called Nettie who Vivien takes a room with. Nettie has lost both of her sons in the war and has found solace in the wrong places. We see her go on a journey of discovery and it’s played so beautifully by Rita. It’s also an important story to tell because anti-Semitism is still very much in operation and it is insidious and overlooked. It’s too rare that non Jewish people talk about modern day anti-Semitism, it’s only discussed as something in the past that’s long gone.
What has been your highlight of the production?
There’s been so many great days – there was a really good day when Tom and I were filming on a train. It was one of those scenes where we didn’t know where the camera was going to go, it was very dynamic and very exciting. My first day working with Rory was pretty spectacular. The sets are just brilliant, and Ben the designer is amazing – you walk on set and everything is just so lived in. Actually, my first week we were filming in a studio where all these rooms had been built, and that was my first time on a film set, and I was walking around like “God, this is fantastic!” There’s been a lot of pinch me moments on this – obviously working with Rory [Kinnear], Tracy Ann [Oberman], Eddie [Marsan] and Sam [Spiro] has been spectacular.
I really idolised Sam throughout drama school – I’d just graduated there, and I always talk about Sam and I’d watch her on livestreams and things, and when I heard she was going to play my mum in this I just couldn’t believe it! Tracy also really took me under her wing. This project is so close to both our hearts, and she really looked out for me – she went the extra mile to FaceTime me after filming when there was something in an upcoming scene I needed to talk through with her, and just generally building me up. It felt like a lot of pressure at first and I couldn’t have done it without her.
All of the actors I worked with were so generous, it felt like such an undertaking to step headfirst into a lead straight out of training but as soon as we did the read through, I knew I was part of a brilliant ensemble and wouldn’t be doing it alone.
How has it been working with such an incredible cast?
Obviously, I was so nervous – I couldn’t believe that for my first job I would be working with people I’ve looked up to my whole life. When I was waiting for the job to start, I kept thinking “I can’t believe I’m going to actually meet these people!” The read through was maybe the best day of my life. They are so kind, and they work in such an incredible way. It’s the perfect first job to watch pros do what they’re doing. They’re all so generous as well – Eddie would explain what he’s up to, and he doesn’t mind me sidling up and saying, “What’s going on? What should I do?”. They’re all so kind. Sam [Spiro] is so funny – the opening scene in episode one, a dinner scene where Vivien is miserable, and she would be ad-libbing in character, as my mum, and I’d have to really try hard to keep it together.
Can you tell us about working with Sarah Solemani?
I love Sarah Solemani! It’s just as simple as that I look up to her so much. After I got the part, we had a Zoom – me, Lisa [Mulcahy] and Sarah, and I was so nervous and I’d really dressed up, in this terrible student flat, and I was sat on my bed where I’d set up because that was the only white wall! When Sarah came on the call immediately off the bat, she was just so welcoming and cool. Obviously, her writing is unbelievable, but she also took so much time for me. The advice and assurance she gave me will stay with me forever.
I’m lucky for my first job to be so female led and for her to be at the helm. Watching her work and watching her edit the scripts is like a masterclass, and she’s so open to your ideas and how to make things work, which is lovely, especially just starting out, to be heard is a really liberating experience.
Do you think Vivien was aware of the significance of going to London?
No, I don’t think so. She knows it’s a big decision and that she’s running away, and that’s terrifying, but she just goes with her gut. She’s always on the front foot – she knows she’s breaking the family mould but it’s the only thing to do. There’s no other path that Vivien would have taken – she’s just born that way. She would have done that no matter what, and I’m so glad she does. The idea of her staying in Manchester would break my heart… no offence to Manchester at all, but just in terms of Vivien’s experiences there!
What does Vivien look like? Did you have any say in the costume and make-up?
Yes, I did! Claire Anderson and Sam Marshall are brilliant. We actually started speaking quite early on, as soon as I got the part and I really deferred to them, because they know so much more about this period. When I went to try on the clothes I was like, okay, I can see Vivien sort of appearing in front of me. I loved it. Vivien gets a makeover pretty early on, when she moves to London and upgrades – that’s one of the great things about Vivien: she has all of these great dreams, but she hasn’t really fulfilled them.
When she goes to London, she looks around, and then starts getting braver and braver with her choices. Sam has mapped out the makeup that Vivien starts making baby steps into the woman she wants to be. First winged eyeliner – then bolder lipstick – then a beehive. I loved discovering that journey because it’s so realistic. I think we’ve all gone through that at some point or another. She takes up her clothes… she really comes into herself in London. I’ve got this little suede coat that’s freezing to wear, but it looks great!
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Taking A Leap Of Faith Ridley Road is a new sixties-set BBC drama series starring this Sunday and here’s one of its cast Agnes O’Casey talking about it… Tell us about Vivien… Vivien is twenty-three and living in Manchester, in a loving but overbearing household. She is still unmarried and feels this mounting pressure of
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