Every season, GBH Drama prepares to bring you coverage of the latest and greatest in British dramas. This month, we're getting a brand new series from MASTERPIECE: Ridley Road. Featuring intrigue, history, and an often overlooked 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 by the same name and historical records. The series takes place in London in 1962 — parallel to Season 6 of Call The Midwife — but Ridley Road shows the side of British politics and religion other period dramas ignore. The first episode not only introduces the main characters but also gives viewers the most important historical facts necessary to understand the rest of the series.

This Isn’t Poplar
The episode starts with a blonde woman and a young boy who is her son (or stepson) in a very nice stately home. The boy’s father comes home and they all greet each other with the Hitler salute. This intro, while jarring, makes somewhat more sense once you keep watching the episode.

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

The next morning, Vivien finds out Jack is headed to London, supposedly on tailoring business errands. Her Aunt Rosa, a Holocaust survivor, tells Vivien to go find out Jack’s real story. She advises Vivien to hide her Star of David, bring her hairdressing scissors so she can get work, and call herself Evans instead of Epstein. Vivien has clearly never been that far away from home before, but she takes the advice.

You Can Ask The Question But You May Not Like The Answer
Vivien finds the address where Jack is supposed to be for “business” but a nerdy guy with glasses answers the door and says Jack’s not around. He also claims Jack has a million girlfriends, and “apologetically” tells Vivien to move on. Vivien is angered by this and storms off looking for a room to rent and the help wanted ads. A man who reveals himself to be Vivien’s uncle realizes why she was looking for Jack. He decides to tail her to make sure she stays out of trouble. Something is clearly going on in that shop besides cutting wool!

Finding an ex-boyfriend in a new city requires a crash pad and a job, and Vivien quickly acquires both. She finds a room owned by an older Catholic woman and employment at a hair salon in SoHo. Barbara, the salon owner, tells her her duties are to clean up and make sure supplies are organized. Vivien also meets Barbara’s son Stevie, who is a law student. He’s also biracial, but Vivien is mostly paying attention to the fact that while he’s nice, he’s not Jack, who she still needs to find. Barbara suggests to Vivien that whatever man she’s worried about, he’s not worth it, but if Vivien wants to attempt to win him back she should get some nice new clothes.

Armed with a new wardrobe to win Jack back, Vivien ends up in Trafalgar Square. Colin Jordan, the real-life leader of the National Socialist Movement (played by Rory Kinnear), is yelling about deporting every single Jewish person from the UK. There are also far right meetings interspersed with the rally. This antisemitic and also anti-immigrant and racist sentiment is the far right’s reaction to post-World War II immigration from former UK colonies and the rise of national and international corporations which they blame on “others.”

Jack is right there in the middle of the rally waving flags. Vivien is extremely confused and starts yelling his name. At the same time, a fight breaks out between the fascists and antifascists, knocking Vivien to the ground. Stevie manages to see Vivien in the melee and they escape. A policeman on horseback doesn’t bother to hassle the fascist thugs who call Stevie racial slurs, but he does insinuate Stevie is about to commit a crime. Later, at the salon, Stevie asks if Vivien is a member of any of the organized resistance groups fighting the fascists, and she says she’s never been a political person. One could argue Vivien’s identity as a Jewish woman is inherently political but she has to figure this out herself.

Later on, Vivien’s uncle Soly and his associate roll by Vivien’s crash pad and force her to get into their car. Vivien thinks she’s getting kidnapped but they tell her she’s going to find out about “Peter”. They drop her in an empty railyard and she sees Jack hiding. Vivien finds out that her Jack is really named Peter, and he’s joined the National Socialist Movement as a mole. Since he’s undercover he has to do what the other fascists are doing. However, he finds out about all the hate crimes the thugs are planning and he alerts the Jewish community leaders in advance to prevent death and injury. He’s able to spy on the fascists because he “passes” as not being visibly Jewish. He does in fact love Vivien but his work would put any girlfriend or wife of his in danger and that’s the real reason he broke up with her.

While Vivien is processing the answers to her questions, she calls home. Her father knows Vivien is with his brother, but he purposely keeps this information from her mother. Aunt Rosa is pretending she has no idea where Vivien is even though she gave her the idea to run away to find Peter/Jack. Jeremy’s family is angry about the clearly broken engagement. Vivien tells her mother she’s fine, but she needs reassurance that things are going to be OK. Finding out that your ex-boyfriend is a double agent for the Jewish antifascist movement is a lot to take in.

Accidental Recruitment
Uncle Soly points out that the fascists are next plotting to attack a yeshiva during the night. Jewish institutions in London at the time did not have signs or symbols on the building in order to stop death threats. Soly explains that Aunt Rosa was from a town where the 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 Vivien to realize that thinking “it’s not going to be that bad” will always result in death. Peter/Jack is picked to spy on the location. The other fascists have no clue there will be Jewish men ready to fight them off (and that the building was already evacuated). Unfortunately, one of the fascists has a Molotov, and Peter/Jack is injured trying to stop the bottle from being thrown into a window. Peter is taken to the hospital but the Jewish leaders lose contact with him.

Vivien suggests she try to get information out of the staff but the antifascists warn her that it’s risky as it’s possible the fascists will also be there. She successfully sneaks into the ward but fails to locate Peter/Jack. Vivien realizes that if she’s going to find out more info about Peter/Jack’s injuries she needs a better disguise. After apologizing for being late for work, Vivien manages to sneak out some styling supplies. Later that night she bleaches her hair so it’s blonde and better able to “pass.” Her next assignment is to talk to Jordan to find out where Peter/Jack is. Vivien pretends to be a fascist girl Peter/Jack is dating to avoid suspicion. Vivien successfully infiltrates the headquarters. She doesn’t know it, but the audience can see Stevie also spying on the location, and he hears Vivien repeating that script. The episode ends with Vivien meeting with Jordan.

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