“Ridley Road,” the new “Masterpiece” four-parter that premiered over the weekend on GBH 2, is a mixed bag. It’s based on some fascinating — and timely — pieces of history, as it tells a story against the backdrop of the thriving neo-Nazi movement in early-1960s London. Based on the novel by Jo Bloom, the series is named after the street where the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement held its meetings. But the fictional story told in that compelling context is flawed, if well-intentioned.
It’s about a young Jewish woman named Vivien Epstein, who leaves her family home in Manchester to get away from the marriage her parents are pushing her into. Played wonderfully by Agnes O’Casey, Vivien is smitten with the mysterious bad-boy Jack (Tom Varey), and she follows him to London, leaving behind her family as well as a Holocaust-survivor relative who lives with them. She’s a hairdresser, and she quickly finds a job and an apartment.
Once in the big city, she falls in with a resistance movement and becomes an undercover spy. She dyes her hair blond, insinuates herself into the National Socialist Movement, and slowly tries to seduce its leader, Colin Jordan (who was a real antisemite of the time), played with full-on creepiness by Rory Kinnear. She does the Nazi salute and talks the talk, but she is busy planting bugs and carrying intel back to the group of resisters, which happens to include her Uncle Soly (Eddie Marsan, from “Ray Donovan”).
It’s entertaining, and disturbing, and it blends in ordinary street footage from the time so that the era comes alive. But it’s also so improbable that you may find yourself rolling your eyes. If you can get past the notion that the inexperienced Vivien could actually take to spying so quickly and so well, there are moments and performances to admire.