Agnes O’Casey stars in Ridley Road. Photo: BBC / Ben Blackall
Sarah Solemani is in Hollywood. She is about to go into an edit of her next series, Chivalry, looking at #MeToo from within the entertainment industry co-written with and co-starring Steve Coogan. But first, she wants to speak to The Big Issue about BBC One’s Ridley Road.
“I’m thrilled to talk to you,” she says. “I’m a huge supporter of The Big Issue and housing is something really close to my heart.
“It was one of the inspirations behind Ridley Road – how problems with housing leads to the rise of the far right. It was not hard to join those dots.”
Sunday night television is not usually this political. And rarely this vital. But Ridley Road – adapted from Jo Bloom’s novel – takes us inside the anti-Fascist 62 Group as they took on the National Socialist Movement, the British neo-Nazis led by Colin Jordan. It is a story of resistance, of protest, of courage but also of love. And housing…
The Big Issue: When you started writing about resistance to the far right in sixties Britain, you were living in Donald Trump’s America. How much were you filtering the story through the politics of today?
Sarah Solemani: The fear of being in Trump’s America was so real and continuous. I didn’t have direct threats to my life, although during Covid it felt like the incompetency of the administration could kill me, but it wasn’t hard to tap into those fears.
So even though Ridley Road is set in 1962, I set out very deliberately to make everything the far right say something that could be heard now.
I also wanted to make sense of what feels like quite an overwhelming time for a lot of people because we’re seeing this rise in the populist strongman, whether it’s on home turf or in America, India, Brazil, Eastern Europe. There’s something happening that is beyond nationality, where these men represent a place where a lot of people feel supported in ways they feel are logical and true.
That, to me, needs to be unpacked. So it’s about how people come to hateful conclusions which can also lead to murder.
How, then, is Ridley Road about housing?
I wanted to tap into the psyche of people who are vulnerable to the rhetoric of the far right. I came from a place of ‘how would it be a logical conclusion?’ We had this wave of immigration from the Commonwealth and encouraged cheap labour to come to work in the NHS or on public transport, but there was no housing.
The famous ‘no Jews, no Blacks, no Irish’ signs were still there. Coupled with the remodelling of the city skyline with high rises and the slum housing lots of white working-class people were living in being deemed uninhabitable and demolished.
I tell it through the eyes of an old-age pensioner who lost her sons in the war and doesn’t want to leave her community. You can see the isolation, the confusion, this overwhelming rapid change. It creates a perfect storm – with unstable housing and all the newness – for people to cling to an ideology which is reductive and very nostalgic.
We’ve just had a special edition of The Big Issue all about the power of protest.
I think protest is so vital and necessary for the health of our democracy. I’ve always loved a demonstration – I always get very emotional.
I feel overwhelmed with emotion for the first 10 minutes and then I’ll start shouting. But it’s about how you occupy space, being in a collective, stomping through the road, stopping traffic – psychologically, that resets you. ‘Oh, this is our space.’
It belongs to us. This isn’t the establishment space, it’s the people’s space. And shouting when you’re supposed to be quiet, again, that resets you on how powerful your noise is, literally, when you’re in a collective. And this is before we even get to the messaging of the protest.
How important was it for this series to get a primetime Sunday night slot?
I want as many people as possible to see it, from the left and right, but especially the right to hold a mirror and see themselves. I was thrilled it has such a prominent slot. And noble things aside, it’s a great thriller and it is sexy. So whether you relate to the subject matter or not, it’s a good entertaining ride.
Are you always drawn to the social politics in the stories you tell?
I am an activist and I lose sleep worrying that I could be doing or should be doing more. I have resources and I have a platform – so to use my work in this way helps me sleep better at night. It feels like a useful use of one’s time on the planet.
Do you feel we need to keep fighting the same battles – that they are never won permanently?
Anytime there is economic disparity or suffering, there will be someone with a reductive ideology who blames other people.
It’s not complicated and that’s its virtue. It’s simple. So it’s going to be ever present, but that shouldn’t paralyse us.
We have to keep the body politic healthy – yes, there are going to be bad cells that invade. But how you keep it healthy is good education and good housing for all, making sure people aren’t so desperate.
I feel that all my work is about housing. I’ve written a show called Dude, Where’s My Castle, and it’s a comedy about an aristocrat that loses her castle and falls through the housing crisis.
I’m also working with Mary Trump, Donald Trump’s niece, who wrote the book and really, that whole family is about getting government money for housing. And because I have been a renter on housing benefit with an unstable income facing evictions – when you have experienced that, it stays with you.
I could see the road to homelessness as easily as I could see coming to Hollywood and making it. It was there. It was waiting for me. So it informs a lot of my work.
When most people think about the Big Issue, they think of vendors selling the Big Issue magazines on the streets – and we are immensely proud of this. In 2022 alone, we worked with 10% more vendors and these vendors earned £3.76 million in collective income. There is much more to the work we do at the Big Issue Group, our mission is to create innovative solutions through enterprise to unlock opportunity for the 14million people in the UK living in poverty.