Ridley Road review – fascism thriller resonates in our current dark age
Based on Jo Bloom’s novel, Sarah Solemani’s drama tells the story of amateur spies infiltrating neo-Nazis in 60s London. Despite some cartoonish moments, it is highly disturbing
Sun 3 Oct 2021 22.00 BST
A sunlit bedroom in a country house in Kent, 1962. An adorable moppet is helping a young blond woman make the bed. They are joined by the dapper man of the house. They gather in front of the window and smilingly give a Nazi salute.
So begins Ridley Road (BBC One), the four-part adaptation by Sarah Solemani of Jo Bloom’s 2014 novel of the same name. It is an arresting opening, made even more so by the fact that the story about to unfold, we are told, was inspired by true events.
The true part is the rise of neo-fascism in 60s England, when the dismal rags of Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, and the version of the British National party that would become the National Front, were supplemented by the National Socialist Movement led by a man called Colin Jordan. It is he – played by Rory Kinnear – who we see sieg-heiling in the sunshine.
The drama is named after the road that housed the headquarters of the coalition of Jewish men known as the 62 Group who took direct militant action against the NSM in particular. Their most famous confrontation was in Trafalgar Square in 1962, when Jordan – protected by the Free Speech Act – held an antisemitic rally where a riot broke out between attenders and protesters.
Ridley Road unfolds from the perspective of the blond woman we see in the opening, the fictional Vivien Epstein. Epstein (Agnes O’Casey, giving not a sign that this is her first television role) moves from her loving but claustrophobic home in Manchester, where she lives with her parents, to swinging London in search of ex-boyfriend Jack Morris (Tom Varey).
Morris, it turns out, is embedded in the NSM as a spy for a covert group of Jewish anti-fascist activists led by Epstein’s uncle Soly (Eddie Marsan), who is ably supported by his formidable wife Nancy (the estimable Tracy-Ann Oberman, who has herself braved relentless and public anti-Semitic abuse in recent years, bringing another and even more immediate layer of relevance to the story). After taking part in an NSM arson attack on a yeshiva during which a student is killed, Morris disappears, leading Epstein to charm her way into Colin Jordan’s good graces to find out whether Morris has been unmasked, injured or killed.
Injured only! From there it is only a short leap to Epstein becoming embedded herself and working with Jack to avert further NSM attacks (including plans to disrupt the yeshiva boy’s funeral – there is a heartbreaking shot of a Jewish man having to hide behind the headstone of the grave he is visiting when they are directed to the wrong cemetery). The group gathers intelligence on Jordan’s plans and the “paramilitary force” he is training in the country house lent to him by a sympathetic aristocrat.
Though the main thrust of the story is the amateur espionage and the increasing involvement of Epstein in Jordan’s world, it is in the quieter, more domestic moments that the drama is most convincing. The ghostlike presence of the Epsteins’ relative, Roza (Julia Krynke), a survivor of the Holocaust scoured out by grief and suffering, abrades the conscience of Vivien’s mother, Liza (Samantha Spiro, who excels at nervy, inarticulately stricken characters and is well deployed here). Not appreciating how much danger they were in, she refused Roza’s family a place to stay when they were fleeing the Nazis, and her guilt fills the house as it must have done so many.
Elsewhere, the fertile ground in which the seeds of antisemitism and assorted other bigotries flourish is well evoked. We see the comfort that Epstein’s aged London landlady, Nettie (Rita Tushingham), finds in the local community leader, Gary Burns (Nigel Betts), and his explanations as to why the world is changing so rapidly around her. You’ll never guess whose fault it is.
The London parts, however, have a much broader-brush feel to them. The romance element – complete with potential rival in the form of Stevie (Gabriel Akuwudike), who currently has Vivien down as a secret fascist but, one suspects, will have the scales fall from his eyes before the credits on the third episode roll – feels awkward and unconvincing. The direction feels strangely stilted and the dialogue flimsy, the script never quite first-class. The parts set in the hairdresser’s where Vivien gets a job are almost cartoonish, and the relentless salt-of-the-earthiness of everyone born in the East End becomes quite grating.
Still, even if you might wish it exhibited a bit more complexity and artistic refinement, it is a drama with resonance. It has the right story to tell – alas – in our current dark age.
The Horrifying True Story Behind Ridley Road's Most Sinister Character
Colin Jordan – played by Rory Kinnear in the BBC series – is based on a real-life fascist leader.
By Sophie McEvoy
Oct. 4, 2021
Set in the 1960s London, the BBC’s latest drama Ridley Road sees 20-year-old hairdresser Vivien Epstein infiltrate a facist, neo-Nazi group as they follow their leader Colin Jordan on a violent campaign against the UK’s Jewish community.
While Vivien and the majority of the characters of this new drama are fictional, Jordan was actually a real person. Played by Rory Kinnear in the series, Jordan leads the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement (NSM), which was a far-right fascist organisation in sixties Britain. Through this group (and others), Jordan incited racism and rioting through his speeches and public appearances.
Born John Colin Campbell Jordan on July 19, 1923, the future neo-Nazi leader first found far-right politics while studying history at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge. It was here that he started following the teachings of Arnold Leese, who was the leader of the pre-war Imperial Facist League, per the Guardian. This led to Jordan forming a “nationalist club” while at Cambridge, which became the Birmingham Nationalist Book Club once he graduated.
In 1956, Jordan was handed his first conviction in relation to his far-right activism for “insulting words and behaviour during a protest” led by the League of Empire Loyalists. Soon after, Jordan formed the White Defence League, which he ran out of a property in Notting Hill left to him by Leese following his death in 1956.
Jordan went on to merge this group with the National Labour Party, which soon became the British National Party. He soon left the BNP following a disagreement within the party in 1962, leading to the formation of the NSM. That same year, Jordan was convicted at the Old Bailey under the 1936 Public Order Act for attempting to form a paramilitary force called Spearhead, modelled after a paramilitary organisation associated with the Nazi Party called the Sturmabteilung (SA).
During his time in prison, Jordan married the niece of fashion designer Christian Dior, Françoise. According to the Independent, Françoise was “as fervently Nazi as Jordan” – so much so that part of their marriage ceremony included the couple cutting their fingers and mixing their blood over a copy of Adolf Hitler’s 1938 manifesto Mein Kampf. The couple divorced in the mid-1960s, however.
Jordan and the NSM were regular faces within the British court system in the ’60s and ’70s following demonstrations, protests, riots, and arson attacks against the Jewish community, synagogues, and other buildings across London. It was these acts of terror that led to the formation of the 62 Group, an anti-fascist organisation that fought against the NSM.
The neo-Nazi leader eventually “fell from grace […] if you can ever say that he was in a place of grace to start with” as Kinnear explained during an interview about Ridley Road, but continued his “diatribe of hate” until he died in 2009.
Marie Françoise Suzanne Dior (7 April 1932 – 20 January 1993), better known as Françoise Dior, was a French socialite and neo-Nazi underground financier. She was the niece of French fashion designer Christian Dior (1905–1957) and Resistance fighter Catherine Dior (1917–2008), who publicly distanced herself from her niece after she married British neo-Nazi activist Colin Jordan in 1963. She was a close friend of Savitri Devi.
Early life and family
Marie Françoise Suzanne Dior was born on 7 April 1932, the daughter of Madeline Leblanc and Raymond Dior, a left-wing journalist and the brother of French couturier Christian Dior and Resistance fighter Catherine Dior.Her father Raymond, who had been employed at the family business headquarters in Paris for some years, was a Communist International sympathizer, to the despair of his own father Maurice Dior, a fertilizer industrialist. Raymond was involved with the satirical gazette Le Crapouillot and embraced radical ideas, advocating the '200 families [fr]' conspiracy theory, that is the belief that 200 French industrial and financial families are responsible, in his own words, "for all the ills of the land". Raymond was bisexual, and scholar Graham Macklin notes that her biological father could have been Valentin de Balla, a Hungarian nobleman.
Dior's attraction to Nazism emerged in her childhood, during the Nazi occupation of France (1940–1944). According to historian Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, "one of the sweetest memories" of Dior was the compliment "What a beautiful little Aryan girl" made to her by an SS-man in Paris. She was initially a fervent royalist and took an interest in the study of pre-Revolutionary France. Dior came to believe that the ideals of the French Revolution were in reality a cover for a global conspiracy led by international elites whose aim was national degeneracy.
On 27 April 1955, Dior married Count Robert-Henri de Caumont-la-Force, a Grimaldi descendant of Prince of Monaco Honoré III (1720–1795), with whom she had a daughter.
World Union of National Socialists
Dior came to be disappointed by traditional aristocracy and her marriage turned out to be unhappy.The couple divorced in 1960. Having heard in the press of the Trafalgar Square rally held by British neo-Nazi activist Colin Jordan, she travelled to England in the summer of 1962 and became a frequent visitor of the London headquarters of the National Socialist Movement (NSM), a neo-Nazi organization led by Jordan. The latter began courting Dior and introduced her to Savitri Devi; Dior and Devi became close friends from that moment.
Dior used her fortune and social network to support the creation of the French chapter of the World Union of National Socialists (WUNS), an Anglo-American neo-Nazi organization established by Jordan and George Lincoln Rockwell at the Cotswold Camp in August 1962. Upon her return to France, she began to head the national section of the WUNS. Dior brought former Waffen SS officer Claude Jeanne to the movement, who founded the West European Federation (FOE) in 1963 – a WUNS branch encompassing France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Spanish Basque Country and Romandy. However, her success in recruiting former high-ranking Nazis and members of the social elite turned out to be limited. By the time the police dissolved the FOE in May 1964, the group had only 42 members, most of them social misfits.
Marriage to Colin Jordan
While Jordan was imprisoned following a 1962 conviction for establishing a paramilitary group, Dior became engaged for around a month in June 1963 to another NSM member and friend of Jordan, John Tyndall. That event contributed to a growing feud between the two allies, which led to a split within the NSM in 1964.Upon Jordan's release, however, Dior chose to marry him instead. Jordan proposed to her in September 1963 during a flight to Britain; his relationship with Dior soon took priority over the movement.
After a civil ceremony held in Coventry on 5 October 1963, where demonstrators hurled rotten eggs and apples at the couple as they gave the Nazi salute, Dior and Jordan had a second wedding on 6 October at the NSM headquarters in London. The photographs and newsreel footage of the ceremony – illustrating them mingling blood after cutting their ring fingers with a dagger before letting a "unity drop" fall over an open copy of Mein Kampf – were published widely by the press. The guests gave the Hitler salute and the "Horst-Wessel-Lied" was played. Dior also stated, "All I want is little Nazi children." Dior's mother rejected the marriage, saying, "We want to have as little to do with this sad affair", and adding that she would not allow Jordan into her home. Following the media coverage of the events, her aunt Catherine Dior, a Ravensbrück concentration camp survivor, issued a press release denouncing "the publicity given by the press and television to [her] niece Françoise Dior's nonsensical statements. The fame of [her] brother Christian Dior must not be used to highlight the scandal and risk tarnishing a name carried with honor and patriotism by members of my family." Savitri Devi was unable to attend the wedding; she had been banned from Britain following the Cotswold founding camp of the WUNS in 1962.
Only three months after her wedding to Jordan, the couple separated, again attracting sensational coverage in the press. Dior-Jordan – as she was by then calling herself – was rapidly disillusioned by her husband's leadership qualities and publicly dismissed him as a "middle-class nobody". The Daily Mirror ran a front-page headline reading, "Nazi Told: 'Marriage is Over'", with the subheading "You're no Leader, says Françoise". The next day, the paper ran another story with the headline "Please – I love you says Führer", quoting Jordan as he reportedly begged Dior to "please, please, please come home". Dior and Jordan reconciled once she was convinced of his ability to lead the NSM, which had proven to easily fall into factionalism.
Dior remained influential within the NSM in London. On 31 July 1965, she was involved in an arson committed by six NSM members against the Ilford and Lea Bridge Road synagogues. Dior was also the official WUNS representative in France by that year. On 4 June 1965, she was convicted in absentia to a 4-month jail sentence for having displayed neo-Nazi leaflets on the walls of the British embassy in Paris on a previous occasion. Dior then returned to France, where she was arrested in Nice on 4 October 1966 and held in custody for the Paris event
She was released in February 1967, then eloped to Jersey with her new lover, Terence Cooper, whom she had met at the NSM. The couple soon relocated to Normandy, where they were visited by Savitri Devi, then reappeared in the summer of 1967 in a council house of Dagenham, East London rented by Cooper's family. Both of them had been expelled from the NSM at this point. Dior was questioned by the police and charged with inciting NSM members to set fire to the synagogues in London two years earlier. She received an 18-month jail sentence in January 1968 and was sent to Holloway prison. While in jail, Dior was nicknamed "Nazi Nell" by the other inmates. Jordan divorced his wife in October 1967 on grounds of adultery with Cooper.
In 1969 Dior entered in contact with French neo-Nazi Mark Fredriksen and the FANE to create an antisemitic movement called the Front Uni Antisioniste ('Anti-Zionist United Front'). A meeting was held on 6 February 1969 with Dior, Fredriksen, Henry Coston and Pierre Sidos in order to organize the fight against "Jewish influence and Zionist propaganda", but the organization never came to light. In October 1970 Dior invited Savitri Devi to stay in her home in Ducey, Normandy.Devi spent 9 months there, working on her memoirs; then returned to New Delhi in August 1971.
Later life and death
Cooper and Dior lived together in Ducey, Normandy, in a home that had been a former presbytery, from August 1970 until July 1980, when their relationship ended. By the early 1980s, Dior was financially ruined after a bad investment in a Parisian nightclub, and she had to sell the home in 1982.
She joined the mainstream right-wing Rally for the Republic (R.P.R.) and married in 1983 Count Hubert de Mirleau. A leading member of French ethnonationalist think tank GRECE, de Mirleau belonged to one of France's oldest noble houses – although he was not particularly wealthy. He later joined the far-right Front National in 1985.
When British fascist Martin Webster started his short-lived group Our Nation following his expulsion from the National Front in December 1983, Dior allegedly paid some of his legal expenses.
She died of lung cancer on 20 January 1993 in the American Hospital of Neuilly-sur-Seine, aged 60.
In his autobiographical account of the relationship, entitled Death by Dior and published in 2013, Terence Robert Cooper, better known as Terry Cooper, her partner for 13 years, states that Françoise had incestuous relations with her daughter Christiane, who committed suicide in 1978.