When swastikas held sway in London

When swastikas held sway in London

For the Times of Israel September 29 2021

At a time when “so many governments are either not fighting racism, or actively encouraging it”, the BBC is about to screen an extraordinary four-part TV series, examining an almost forgotten aspect of antisemitism in Britain — the challenges to fascism in the early 1960s.

Ridley Road, which begins on Sunday (October 3), is a fictionalised look at the anti-Jewish demonstrations of the real life far right National Socialist Movement, (NSM) led by Colin Jordan. Facing them were the young Jewish men and women of the equally real 62 Group, who, through some tough street fighting and intelligence work, defeated the fascists.

The series is based on a book of the same name by Jo Bloom, published in 2014. Ridley Road itself is the site of a long-established street market in east London and became the natural focus for the Jewish opposition to Jordan and his band of latter-day Nazis.

In July 1962, Jordan held a notorious demonstration in central London’s Trafalgar Square, with rallying cries of “The Jews have taken control” and “Perish Judah”. The 62 Group waded in to oppose the NSM and a near riot ensued, with multiple arrests. Jordan, at the time, was married to Françoise Dior, niece of fashion designer Christian Dior.

In the BBC’s re-telling of the story — complete with the cream of British character actors — a young Jewish woman, Vivien Epstein, leaves her northern home city, Manchester, to find her boyfriend, Jack Morris, in London. By accident she becomes caught up in the Trafalgar Square riots and to her horror she sees none other than Jack, standing on top of one of the iconic stone lions, waving a fascist flag and shouting Nazi slogans.

When it transpires that “Peter Fox”, a name which Jack has assumed, is a 62 Group infiltrator into the Jordan network, Vivien resolves to help him in this dangerous work. And so, in one of the most chilling openings to any TV series of recent years, the first episode of Ridley Road shows Vivien, played by newcomer Agnes O’Casey, snapping out a “Sieg Heil” salute with Colin Jordan and his young son. (In fact, in real life, Jordan had no children).

The show’s executive producer, Nicola Shindler, is Jewish, and the writer, and co-producer Sarah Solemani, is Jewish on her father’s side. For Shindler, dealing with the hate speech of the fascists and neo-Nazis in the script was “incredibly uncomfortable as a Jewish woman. I wasn’t aware of how prevalent these views were in the 1960s and I did find it really shocking”.

But Shindler — in words echoed by every member of what Solemani calls “a passion project” — said it was “incredibly timely” to be showing Ridley Road now. “We are all aware of the increase in antisemitism and the need to fight back against it”, she told the ToI. “It’s particularly necessary to tell this story when so many governments are either not fighting racism, or actively encouraging it”.

Tracy-Ann Oberman is a British Jewish character actress who has been at the forefront of the fight against antisemitism, particularly of acolytes of the former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, on social media. Oberman plays Ridley Road’s Nancy Malinovsky, wife to 62 Group Soly [correct] Malinovsky, and is the wise mentor to the young people who take part in the deeply scary infiltration into Jordan’s network.

She told ToI: “At a time when we are reappraising British history through the eyes of minorities — colonialism and slavery — Britain also needs to take a long look into its brushes, and obsession, with fascism. Ridley Road is a reminder that this resurgence of Jew-hate happened again in 1962, and we have forgotten that fascists held mass marches against Jews, set fire to synagogues and attacked Jewish people. What is so shocking is that at the time, neither the police nor the government were that bothered about it: the 62 Group grew out of a need for a community to protect itself when no-one else would. And today, our community needs to know how vulnerable we were”.

One of the few remaining identified members of the real-life 62 group is Gerald Ronson, a British businessman and philanthropist who is the founding chairman of the Community Security Trust (CST), a charity which, as well as in-depth research on antisemitism, provides physical protection for the Jewish community in the UK. Ronson has been a major player in support for Israel through the United Jewish Israel Appeal, or UJIA.

The CST was formed in 1994 but had gone through a number of iterations since the end of the 62 Group. Ronson was involved in all of them, convinced of the necessity of on-site security for synagogues, yeshivas, schools and all communal buildings.

Today the CST has an operating budget of £8 million — with a further £14 million from the government so that it can provide security for the community. That — together with the “fantastic relationship” with the police — is the main difference between 1962 and 2021, says Ronson.

“I have been committed to this cause — fighting Nazis — all my life”, Ronson told the ToI. “I became involved with the 62 group because I had friends in it, and I believed at the time that the threat from fascists was deadly serious. But we were fighting Nazis, and sometimes the police, too”.

Even today, Ronson, 82, is still reluctant to talk about the nuts and bolts of what he actually did — although he is often spoken of as one of the main street fighters in London. He said that his late father, Henry, was “very, very tough: he was a heavyweight boxer for the Jewish Lads’ Brigade and he fought the fascists in the late 30s, on the streets against [Sir Oswald] Mosley”. Ronson himself still boxes with a trainer on Sunday mornings.

Of the time of the 62 Group, Ronson says: “It was simple, we did what had to be done. These were Nazis, beating up Jews. I felt we couldn’t tolerate this. We didn’t have knives or guns, but we did what was necessary to protect Jews. Bad people had to be taken off the streets”.

In all, Ronson says, the Jewish opposition to the National Socialist movement was, at the most, between 200 and 250 people in London, with a further 100 or so in Scotland, Manchester, Liverpool, Bournemouth and Brighton.

Sarah Solemani, Ridley Road’s writer, acknowledges the problem in depicting the 62 Group on screen. She says: “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” — and who were enraged to see swastikas on the streets of Britain.

Actor Rory Kinnear, who plays Colin Jordan, has probably the most thankless role in the entire show — having to convince the audience of the truth of Jordan’s abhorrent views. He says: “What we see in contemporary far right politics, to an extent, is this notion that there is this shadowy cabal of Jewish figures operating a global conspiracy to keep down the Christian white man. And here [in Jordan] was somebody who had himself fought in the war, and gone to Cambridge, stirring up that level of hate so soon after the catastrophe of the Holocaust”.

Eddie Marsan, the non-Jewish actor who plays 62 Group leader Soly Malinovsky, has, in real life, been a notable fighter against antisemitism on social media. He comes from the East End of London and is heavily invested in the role and the telling of the story. He says: “Antisemitism gives the myth that it’s punching up to some mythical all-powerful Jewish elite… so quite often, young people are taken in by antisemitic tropes on social media. They don’t see it as racism, they see it as anticapitalist, and they feel more inclined to support it”.

To date, the only person less than happy with Ridley Road has been another surviving member of the 62 Group, Gerry Gable. The founder and editor of the antifascist magazine, Searchlight, Gable, 85, was involved in both intelligence and street fighting in the 1960s.

He was “unimpressed” by the original Jo Bloom book but agreed to help the BBC production by reading the early scripts. He told the ToI that a scene showing the 62 Group using the office phone “would never have happened, as we knew our phones were tapped”. Other scenes, put in for what both Shindler and Solemani say is “dramatic licence and a way of telling an important story”, have been derided by Gable as “irresponsible”.

Perhaps the last word should go to Eddie Marsan. Asked why people should watch Ridley Road, his answer was simple: “Because fascists get kicked up the arse and that’s always good to watch”.

Ridley Road premieres on BBC TV on Sunday October 3 and will be shown on PBS America later in the year.

  • 29 September, 2021