Life & Culture

Ridley Road: my passion project

Television producer Nicola Shindler makes award-winning shows, but her latest series -- about the Jews who took on British fascists in the 1960s -- is personal


WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 28/09/2021 - Programme Name: Ridley Road - TX: n/a - Episode: 1 (No. 1) - Picture Shows: Vivien Epstein (AGNES O'CASEY) - (C) Red Productions - Photographer: Matt Squire


As a petite Jewish woman with a pronounced Northern accent, Nicola Shindler has spent most of her life being looked down upon in more ways than one. Things might be slowly changing but the world of television production remains dominated by white men with middle class Southern accents; Shindler still stands out like a slice of ham at a simcha. 
A pioneer in many ways, as a young woman trying to make her way in the world of television Shindler, now 53, endured horrendous sexism but all of that only fuelled her ambition, even if it meant going it alone. “I wanted to be a producer for a long time but I realised when I got the BBC that the women were script editors and the men were producers,” says Shindler. “This atmosphere of those times — we are talking about the 1990s — was very different. It wasn’t healthy for young women — I had people propositioning me but that was happening to women all the time. 
“Nothing terrible ever happened and I refused to be intimidated by it. I just got on with it, pushed aside a lot of the prejudice and carried on.”
So, she moved home to Manchester, set up Red Productions, and started creating the kind of television that she wanted to watch; interesting, educational, but most of all entertaining. 
On the day we meet over Zoom Shindler  is getting ready for the National Television Awards where the show she produced, It’s A Sin, went on to pick up the prestigious Best New Drama Award. 
She’s more at home behind the camera — as an interview subject it is clear she is a little uncomfortable from the quick short answers she gives and her nervous smile. But her success is gradually forcing her out from the shadows; if something has been produced by Nicola Shindler, who recently sold Red to Studio Canal and has now set up Quay Street Productions, you know it is going to be worth watching.

Altogether shows she has made have won 11 Baftas and countless other awards. She isn’t just one of the most successful television producers around but also one who has influenced what we watch with shows ranging from the ground-breaking Queer As Folk which finally allowed gay people to see their lives reflected on the small screen, to Last Tango in Halifax in which two septuagenarians took centre stage, sparking a raft of copycats. 
She grew up in north Manchester and went to Bury Grammar. Her parents were liberal, cultural Jews — her mother Gay was a teacher and father Geoffrey a solicitor — and they loved television. “They took us to the theatre, the house was filled with books but the television was on the whole time. That really interested me and I realised that was something that could be potentially a career.”
Now she is about to bring out what is perhaps her most personal work  — certainly her most Jewish work — with Ridley Road, an adaptation of the novel by Jo Bloom. 
The series is something of a passion project cooked up between Shindler and Jewish actress and writer Sarah Solemani after they worked on the show called The Five together.  It focuses on the 62 Group, a collection of Jewish anti-fascists who infiltrated the neo–Nazi National Socialist Movement run by Colin Jordan and would do anything – including using their fists — to break up their antisemitic meetings. 
The group was formed out of an earlier iteration, the 43 Group who fought fascists after World War Two.  The stories of post war fascism in the United Kingdom and the Jews who fought against it — along side communists and other antifascists — is a slice of history British and Jewish history Shindler knew nothing about; most of us won’t. 
“I’d heard about the Battle of Cable Street but I didn’t know anything about the 62 Group or the people they were fighting,” she says. “So, when Sarah brought this book to me I was fascinated. It felt important — especially for now — that people learn about this period of history.”
It took five years for the script to get made; during that time the relevance of this story of antisemitism in Britain became ever starker. To write the script Solemani went back to many members of the 62 group and beefed up the role of the book’s protagonist, naïve Mancunian hairdresser Vivien Epstein, played by Agnes O’Casey, who follows her lover Jack Morris (Tom Varey) to London where she finds he has become mixed up in the 62 Group. When he is injured, she bravely infiltrates the neo-Nazis to help save him. 
While the story is fiction, the real events are true. Nicola made the decision to show real footage of a NSM rally in Trafalgar Square in 1962 led by the group’s vehemently antisemitic leader Colin Jordan in which swastikas were brandished along with anti-Jewish slogans. 
“It is shocking that something like that should be allowed to have happened,” she says. “It’s not that long ago and it was so close to World War Two. Jordan stood in front of a banner which said, ‘Free Britain from Jewish Control’ and called Jews a curse on society. The policemen stood by and let it happen. 
“There was no such thing as hate speech in those days and it’s really important to see what was allowed to happen without that law.” The rally only broke up when violence started; with police arresting those who were opposing Jordan. 
The story has been changed in several ways including a character of a Holocaust survivor who is Vivien’s cousin and who lives with the family. For Shindler it is important that a world which so often sees the European Jew as a victim going quietly to his death, that there are plenty of stories of fightbacks —including in 1960s Britain. 
“Cable Street was one thing but for this group — fighting both after the war and in the 1960s — they were impacted by the stories of the concentration camps and the deaths that all of their families experienced. That caused them to take up violent protest; they were violent back because they weren’t going to take it anymore. The looming presence of the trauma of the Holocaust is all over the story.
‘We didn’t want to make something about Jews as victims and that’s what was appealing about this story —they were instigators of their own protection. They were behind the scenes infiltrating the fascist organisations to prevent attacks.
“The story is about doing something actively to fight what you see as the wrongs in the world — looking at antisemitism and racism and saying, ‘that’s not OK.’  And that remains relevant — became more relevant as we went through the process of making this — because of the rise of antisemitic attacks both on social media and physically in the real world. We need to stand up and say something about that.’
Television remains a powerful medium; one that genuinely has the power to change minds and this is Shindler’s understated message on antisemitism. A long-time member of the Labour party, she temporarily resigned it in the Jeremy Corbyn years. 
“I haven’t been personally impacted by antisemitism but as someone who stands for what the Labour Party stands for, I found it very difficult,” she says. “I did stop my membership for a while because I thought he was a very unhealthy leader who was letting antisemitism run rampant, which is really dangerous. 
“This drama is most of all entertaining; it’s exciting, an action story, a love story and I think it’s a good watch but there is a message buried in there, which isn’t too deep, which is you have to stand up and take responsibility and fight back. There is a brilliant line which from one of the characters which is, ‘an anti-fascist does…’ which is important. It’s not enough to say, ‘I don’t like that’. You sometimes have to try and do things against it.’
Not only is Ridley Road  Shindler’s first Jewish story but it is, she believes, the first to put a Jewish family, and a Jewish heroine, and a Jewish story at the front and centre on British television. But while the four-part series stars Tracy Ann Oberman and Samantha Spiro, it has been criticised by David Baddiel  for not making its leads Jewish actors. He pointed out: “It wouldn’t be fine for the BBC to cast like this with any other minority.”
Shindler admits that at the time of casting, the thought that it could upset Jewish people had not occurred to the production team. “We went with the actors who we felt did the strongest auditions and were perfect for the performance. Aggie, our central character does have a Jewish heritage — a grandparent —and we talked about that a lot. 
‘I know it is an issue —and it is something that is being discussed — but Sarah and I are both Jewish and for us it was more important to make sure everything felt very accurate. Going forward, I think I’ll be more aware of it. You learn all the time, don’t you?’
Shindler calls herself a ‘bad Jew’. She doesn’t go to synagogue and isn’t bringing  up her three children with writer Matt Greenhalgh as religiously Jewish. “What interests me is the culture and history of the Jewish people and I am very proud to be part of that,” she says, while also revealing that the  foundation of her success started in the most Jewish of ways — at BBYO.  “I was a big part of it and it’s important to me because it taught me how to run things,” she recalls. “We used to run weekends, conventions, and even trips to Israel and to America. I learned a lot from that and my background has totally influenced my taste and what I want to get on television.”

She has always championed writers who were outsiders — be they gay, older women or working class and always wants to spark conversation and, in her own tiny way, change the world.  
“When I was younger, we watched all the soaps and we watched hard-hitting dramas,” she says. “What I really took from the soaps are the way they can grab and audience, keep hold of them and make them care about a character.”
“But I also loved the way hard-hitting dramas could try and make a comment on the world. In my work I always want a combination of both. I always want to make an audience sit up and take notice.”

Ridley Road airs on BBC1 on October 3

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