7 Questions with… Ridley Road’s Tom Varey: ‘I thought the 60s was all peace, love and rock ‘n’ roll!’

BBC One’s Ridley Road blends a love story and a spy thriller with a history lesson that is as relevant today as ever. Star Tom Varey told BT.com about his role in the Sunday night drama.

By Rhys Lewis Published: 30 September 2021 - 1.38pm
BBC/Red Productions Tom Varey in Ridley Road

If you thought 60s London was all fashion, pop music and swinging streets, BBC One thriller Ridley Road will make you think again.

Adapted from Jo Bloom’s novel by Sarah Solemani, Ridley Road lifts the veil on a darker side of 60s Britain, telling the story of the fight against increasingly potent neo-Nazi movements in London’s East End in the summer of 1962.

Agnes O’Casey, in her first TV role, stars as Vivien Epstein, a 20-year-old Jewish hairdresser from Manchester who travels to London to find her boyfriend, Jack Morris, who has been making frequent unexplained trips to the capital.

Although she fails to track him down, her enquiries lead her to become involved with real-life Jewish anti-fascist organisation the 62 Group and ultimately go undercover in the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement.

The four-part BBC One drama features a big-name cast including Rory Kinnear, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Eddie Marsan and Tamzin Outhwaite.

Tom Varey, who plays Jack, spoke to BT.com about the role, his co-stars, and the warning from history that Ridley Road delivers.

Ridley Road: Everything you need to know

1. Ridley Road has an impressive cast. What was it like to work with actors you’d looked up to for so long?

Tom Varey as Jack Morris in Ridley Road BBC/Red Productions

It was very exciting. It felt like a significant moment in my career. I just couldn’t wait to get started, especially when I find out who was attached to it, such incredible actors. I felt really excited to be amongst such good company.

The way it was filmed was actually quite isolated, so I didn’t get to do much with a lot of people. I had quite a few scenes with Rory Kinnear and he was so good. I’d seen him at the National a couple of years ago playing Iago in Othello and it was maybe the best theatre performance I’d seen. He was such a funny man too, very funny.

2. The way Kinnear portrayed Colin Jordan, could you see what attracts people to such leaders?

It’s happened throughout history where people have a certain quality to their speaking that draws people to them and makes them follow them.

It’s powerful stuff that he’s saying and he says it with such firm belief and vigour that I could see that if you’re vulnerable to that sort of thing how you could be caught in that spell. Sometimes you get caught up in it.

As an actor you have to treat [wearing a swastika] with respect and acknowledge the weight that it carries but I tried not to think about it too much. If might have been different if I’d been playing one of the boys in the NSM but because I was doing my job, I was a spy, it didn’t feel like such a heavy thing as an actor.

Rory Kinnear as Colin Jordan in Ridley Road BBC/Red Productions

Some of the rhetoric that Colin Jordan uses in the show, you can still hear people talking like that nowadays, people who have platforms as well. Unfortunately it’s still out there and it’s still present in society. So it did feel very relevant even though it was set in the 60s. It felt like it’s a good time for it to be on telly.

3. Were you aware of this aspect of British history before you got the role?

Not at all. I’d known about Oswald Mosley in the 40s but the 60s, as far as I knew, was all peace, love and rock ‘n’ roll. So it was kind of crazy to have my world blown apart by this little piece of history that I hadn’t known about, especially an organisation as cool as the 62 Group – they were pretty kick-arse. They weren’t afraid to get involved and stand up for themselves.

4. Tracy-Ann Oberman has fought antisemitism on social media and beyond. Did you speak to her about her experiences?

Tracy-Ann Oberman as Nancy Malinovsky in Ridley Road BBC/Red Productions

Tracy and I only met in the rehearsals before we started. We had an afternoon where we had a chat about things but I could have spent a year with Tracy and just listen to her talk about it, I was learning a lot, I found it very helpful. On set we were just getting on with the job, telling the story that needed to be told.

5. You acted with Sarah Solemani in No Offence. How different was she as writer and executive producer?

I love Sarah Solemani to bits. Obviously with Covid and stuff it was a little bit difficult because she wasn’t in the country when we were filming it, but she was always available to call, we had quite a few zooms which was interesting.

She was well up for hearing what me and Aggi had to say about the scenes and our characters, which was really cool and really nice of her.

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I’ve never been involved to that kind of degree before where I was being included in conversations about script and I was asked for my opinion about whether a character would say something like that or do something like that.

I think she just wanted to make sure the story was as immediate as possible and we just felt comfortable with what we were doing.

6. Aggi O’Casey was making her TV debut. How was she to work with?

Agnes O'Casey as Vivien Epstein in Ridley Road BBC/Red Productions

You wouldn’t have guessed it was her first time in front of the camera, she took to it like a duck to water.

She’s only just left drama school. She’s so brilliant and so lovely, one of the nicest people.

We had a few Zooms before we started and she was down in London for a bit so I went and had dinner with her. She actually made pasta for us but we realised after about two hours that she hadn’t turned the hob on. It was just sitting in the pan!

It meant we had a long to chat about the script and the characters and get a good understanding of how they operate together.

I can’t wait for people to see what she’s done with Vivien because she’s brilliant.

7. Did the pandemic impact on the production?

Not being able to meet up gave us more time for solo preparation – I was given lots of reading material so I was clued up on it all before I got there.

Then once we got going it was fairly smooth. It was odd filming something with the social aspect outside of work not so much a thing. It felt a unique job in that way, there wasn’t much going on outside of work but it meant we were all so happy to be in work and doing it. It was a strange time.

The Trafalgar Square scene, which we filmed in Liverpool, is a huge crowd scene, but we couldn’t have a huge crowd with Covid. It was very clever how they did it, I’m always intrigued by how things work behind the camera. It’s trickery, but that’s the magic of television.

Ridley Road is broadcast on BBC One at 9pm on Sundays from October 3.

All four episodes are available to watch now on BBC iPlayer.