Ridley Road Season 1 Episode 1 Recap: A Transformed Young Woman

Each season, GBH Drama gears up to bring you coverage of the latest and greatest in British drama. This month we get a whole new set of MASTERPIECE: Ridley Road. With an oft-overlooked plot, story, and dramatic storyline, this series does not disappoint. GBH Drama Contributor Amanda-Rae Prescott Is Here To Recap The Magic As It Happens.

Ridley Road is a four-part miniseries based on Jo Bloom’s novel of the same name and historical documents. The series is set in London in 1962 — alongside season 6 of Call the midwife – but Ridley Road shows the side of British politics and religion that other period dramas ignore. The first episode not only introduces the main characters, but also gives viewers the most important historical facts needed to understand the rest of the series.

It’s not poplar
The episode begins with a blonde woman and a young boy who is her son (or son-in-law) in a very beautiful stately home. The boy’s father comes home and they all greet each other with the Hitler salute. This intro, while jarring, makes a little more sense once you keep watching the episode.

Vivian Epstein is a young Jewish woman who lives with her parents and her aunt in Manchester. She is engaged to Jeremy, but she is unhappy with the arrangement. Vivian still has feelings for her missing ex-boyfriend, Jack. When she unexpectedly meets him at her father’s tailor shop, Vivian asks Jack where he was, but he’s super evasive and tells her to forget about him (but not until one last kiss). Later that night, Vivian sees Jack outside her house but he only drops by to see her father about something before leaving.

The next morning, Vivian discovers that Jack is going to London, supposedly to run some business errands. Her Aunt Rosa, a Holocaust survivor, tells Vivian to go find out Jack’s true story. She advises Vivian to hide her Star of David, bring her hairdressing scissors so she can find work, and call herself Evans instead of Epstein. Vivian has clearly never been this far from home before, but she’s taking the advice.

You can ask the question but you might not like the answer
Vivian finds the address where Jack is supposed to be on “business” but a nerdy guy with glasses answers the door and says Jack isn’t there. He also claims that Jack has a million girlfriends and “apologetically” tells Vivian to move on. Vivian is irritated by this and goes looking for a room to rent and the wanted help ads. A man who turns out to be Vivian’s uncle understands why she was looking for Jack. He decides to follow her to make sure she stays out of trouble. There is clearly something going on in this shop besides cutting yarn!

Finding an ex-boyfriend in a new town requires a crash pad and a job, and Vivian quickly acquires both. She finds a room belonging to an older Catholic woman and a job at a hair salon in SoHo. Barbara, the owner of the salon, tells her that her duties are to clean up and make sure the supplies are organized. Vivian also meets Barbara’s son, Stevie, who is a law student. He’s also biracial, but Vivian is mostly careful that while he’s nice, it’s not Jack, whom she has yet to find. Barbara suggests to Vivian that whatever man she’s worried about isn’t worth it, but if Vivian wants to try to win him back, she should buy some nice new clothes.

Armed with a new wardrobe to win Jack back, Vivian finds herself in Trafalgar Square. Colin Jordan, the real leader of the National Socialist Movement (played by Rory Kinnear), shouts about the expulsion of every Jewish person from the UK. There are also far-right rallies interspersed with the rally. This anti-Semitic, but also anti-immigrant and racist sentiment is the far right’s reaction to post-World War II immigration from Britain’s former colonies and the rise of national and international corporations that they blame “others”.

Jack is there, in the middle of the rally, waving flags. Vivian is extremely confused and starts screaming her name. At the same time, a fight breaks out between fascists and anti-fascists, knocking Vivian to the ground. Stevie manages to see Vivian in the fray and they escape. A policeman on horseback doesn’t bother to annoy fascist thugs who call Stevie racial slurs, but he insinuates that Stevie is about to commit a crime. Later at the living room, Stevie asks if Vivian is a member of one of the organized resistance groups fighting fascists, and she says she was never a political person. You could say that Vivian’s identity as a Jewish woman is inherently political, but she has to find that out herself.

Later, Vivian’s uncle Saul and his associate drive past Vivian’s crash pad and force her into their car. Vivian thinks she’s being kidnapped but they tell her she’s going to find out about “Peter”. They drop her in an empty rail yard and she sees Jack hiding. Vivian discovers that her Jack is actually called Peter and that he joined the National Socialist Movement as a mole. Since he’s undercover, he has to do what other fascists do. However, he finds out about any hate crimes the thugs are planning and he alerts Jewish community leaders in advance to avoid death and injury. He is able to spy on fascists because he “passes off” to be visibly non-Jewish. He actually loves Vivian, but her job would put any girlfriend or wife at risk and that’s the real reason he broke up with her.

While Vivian is processing the answers to her questions, she calls home. Her father knows that Vivian is with her brother, but he deliberately hides this information from her mother. Aunt Rosa claims she has no idea where Vivian is even though she gave her the idea to run away to find Peter/Jack. Jeremy’s family are angry over the clearly broken engagement. Vivian tells her mother that she is fine, but she needs reassurance that everything will be fine. Finding out that your ex-boyfriend is a double agent in the Jewish anti-fascist movement is a lot to take in.

Accidental recruitment
Uncle Saul points out that the fascists then plot to attack a yeshiva at night. Jewish institutions in London at the time had no signs or symbols on the building to stop death threats. Saul explains that Aunt Rosa came from a town where German soldiers stayed with Jewish families until they were ready to round everyone up for the concentration camps in the middle of the night. He wants Vivian to realize that thinking “it’s not going to be so bad” will always result in death. Peter/Jack is chosen to spy on the place. The other fascists have no idea that there will be Jewish men ready to fight them (and that the building has already been evacuated). Unfortunately, one of the Fascists has a Molotov, and Peter/Jack is injured trying to save the bottle from being thrown through a window. Peter is taken to the hospital but the Jewish leaders lose contact with him.

Vivian suggests that she try to get information from the staff but the anti-fascists warn her that it’s risky as it’s possible the fascists are also there. She successfully sneaks into the room but fails to locate Peter/Jack. Vivian realizes that if she wants to know more about Peter/Jack’s injuries, she needs a better disguise. After apologizing for being late for work, Vivian manages to sneak out. Later that night, she bleaches her hair to be blonde and better able to “go through”. His next mission is to talk to Jordan to find out where Peter/Jack is. Vivian pretends to be a fascist girl who Peter/Jack is dating to avoid suspicion. Vivian successfully infiltrates the headquarters. She doesn’t know it, but the audience can see Stevie spying on the location as well, and they hear Vivian repeating this script. The episode ends with Vivian meeting Jordan.

If you think back to the beginning of the episode, the blonde woman with the child and the fascist husband is clearly in fact Vivian. How does she get there from this point in the story? Has Peter recovered from his injuries? Will Vivian ever return to Manchester? Hopefully episode 2 of Ridley Road next Sunday will answer some of these questions.

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