Ridley Road and the real Vivien Epstein


I’ve been fascinated by the BBC series, Ridley Road, and the way in which it uses the history of anti-fascism. I haven’t read the novel behind the series, by Jo Bloom, but if there is any consistency at all between the two versions of the story then plainly she was trying to do something interesting with the history, something a historian could never do. Here I’ll try to explain what.

The starting point is that there is, essentially, no good history of the 62 Group. There were a series of interviews written up by Steve Silver (here). There is an account of the same period seen through the eyes of the NSM in Paul Jackson’s biography of Colin Jordan (here). And you can pick up bits from Nigel Copsey and Dave Hann’s histories of anti-fascism in Britain.

Bloom plainly raided Silver’s work as her main source, and so you get a line of dialogue in one of the episodes describing Solly (Eddie Marsan) as owning London’s largest black cab firm. Check that against the Silver manuscript, and you’ll see that (so far) Solly is based on the real life figure of Wally Levy – an ally of the 62 Group, but by no means its key player.

I suspect the idea was to mix Levy with a more important figure in the group Harry Bidney, who had been prosecuted at various times in the 1950s for being in a gaming house, dealing in black market cigarettes, receiving stolen alcohol, and for allowing a room to be used for betting, and for prostitution. There’s probably some of Cyril Paskin and Baron Moss there too.

The series doesn’t really explain why Ridley Road was such a key site for fascist (and therefore antifascist) organising; essentially it was the border line between gentile Hackney in the borough’s south and the Jewish district in the north. In 1947-8, it saw the most intense fascist organising of any district in London between 1945 and the 1970s.

There are problems with the drama – the first episode strains for contemporary resonances, and makes Jordan seems a bigger and better-connected threat than he was. The biggest weakness, for me, reflects the shift from a novel to the small screen. In the former, it makes sense for political organising to be the work of really 2-3 key people who really gras[ everything. The real life 43 and 62 groups were larger, more democtatic – and more chaotic – than that.

By far the most interesting thing Bloom does with the story is that she raids the better-known history of the 43 Group – and takes a key episode from that and makes it the centre of her drama. To recap, what everyone knows about the 43 Group is that they were a set of Jewish ex-servicemen willing to fight a physical battle with the fascists. Through intelligence, and a willing to out-violence their opponents, they knocked over fascist platforms and drove them from the streets.

Now, this narrative is mythic in certain respects – it exaggerates the group’s success rate (which was high in 46 and spring and summer 47 then tailed off, as the fascists grew). It also ignores one or two dark episodes.

The darkest of these concerned a female infiltrator Wendy Turner. She wasn’t Jewish (unlike most people in the 43 Group) but agreed to spent a year of her life passing on intelligence on key fascist leaders – getting close to the point of danger, in order to pass back information. Like “Vivien” in Ridley Road she slept with leading fascists (not Jordan but a Mosley’s lieutenant, Jeffrey Hamm).

Ultimately, Turner suffered a mental health breakdown and was hospitalised and remained there for 30 years. There, she described her life as being “penned inside a mile of corridors, surrounded by sick, twisted, deformed, insane people; doing nothing, going nowhere, only longing with every cell of my body and mind and spirit for death.”

It is incredibly hard trying to find out what happened to Turner. I remember in the 1990s when I interviewed half a dozen members of the 43 Group – few if any were willing to speak about her. But friends of theirs would tell you stories, for example that Turner was hospitalised because she had gone into the fascists, been caught there, and beaten, and the injuries had caused the decades of ill-health that followed.

Daniel Sonnabend gives a different (and even more troubling) version of who attacked her.

What Ridley Road does, it seems to me, is take that story about Turner, turn it into myth, and cure her suffering through the medium of fiction. It presents Turner as having (well – I can’t go on without spoiling the ending) but you get the point. It takes her defeat in real life and makes her heroic.

Knowing that there were real life counterparts to the Vivien character who were there, and didn’t get out – and never got out – that’s the real story.

4 responses »

  1. Thanks David, interesting. A key difference between the novel and the TV series is that in the book it is only the male character who infiltrates the NSM.

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