On-screen, BBC One’s upcoming drama Ridley Road is about divisions: the ‘us and them’ mentality of a violent facist organisation, and the wedges driven between various characters over the course of the series.
But off-screen, the show succeeded in bringing together two future flatmates, series stars Aggi O’Casey and Tom Varey, who made the decision to move in with other friends during the course of filming.
On the morning of their Zoom interview, the two co-stars are in their shared home in north London, where they’re crowded into the corner of a sofa, jostling and talking over one another.
When I ask whether the space is their designated press area, Tom reveals that they’ve had “a bit of stress” trying to decide where to take the interview, after Aggi determined that the lighting was “off” in their previous location. To explain her fastidiousness, she jokes, “This is our first interview we’ve got to do together”. (A moment later, she bobs out of frame to remove what looks like a guitar propped against the wall, leaving a blank canvas behind them.)
Ridley Road is Aggi’s television debut; not only was she cast in the lead role, but she had the added pressure of filming during a pandemic.
The experience was “really, really intense,” she says now. It was also a steep learning curve. “By the end of it I was so unbelievably tired, just because I was in this constant state of being open and learning and receiving. I did feel the pressure a lot, especially because the story held so much weight.”
Tom has already starred in a number of projects, including a small part in Game of Thrones, but this is his first leading-man role in a BBC primetime drama. “When I read the scripts, I’d never read something that was so thrilling and so fast; everything comes at you 100-miles an hour.” He was also excited for the extensive stunt-work required. “There was a lot of fighting and I was naturally drawn to that.” At this, Aggi bursts out laughing next to him. He shrugs: “I love the fight.”
Aggi plays Vivien Epstein, a young Jewish woman from Manchester who travels to London in search of an elusive old flame, Jack Morris (played by Varey). By the end of episode one, she’s been sent undercover inside a facist organisation, where she reunites with Jack (also undercover).
The four-part drama is based on Jo Bloom’s novel of the same name, and set during the 1960s. Rory Kinnear (Years and Years) co-stars in the drama as real-life fascist Colin Jordan, who led the National Socialist Movement (NSM), a neo-Nazi group.
Aggi, whose paternal grandfather was Jewish, bonded with her father over research for Ridley Road. “I never met my granddad because he died young. But it was actually a really nice way of me and my dad sort of reconnecting about that, because he died when he was young [so] my dad didn’t often speak about him and – you know in that Dad way where like, suddenly they can be useful? And, you know, then he could talk about it [his father’s death] more, which was brilliant.”
Both actors believe that the period drama is unusually topical, particularly following the recent rise of antisemitism. Aggi describes feeling “a rising anxiety about what’s happening” in the world. “When the project came in, it was like, ‘Oh, that’s actually somewhere I can put this feeling’. There’s something quite cathartic about the show.”
She adds: “We think about the 60s as ‘The Swinging Sixties’, but actually these things that are happening now were happening then, and it’s something that still has gone totally unaddressed. People who are still being manipulated into thinking that pushing people out and making Britain unfriendly is the way to make them feel safe.”
As she continues, she clutches her hand to her chest in emotion. “Hopefully the fact it’s set in the 60s will be a nice sort of, like, distraction to the fact that it’s all still happening.”
“Colin Jordan’s rhetoric [in the show] – it’s all stuff that you could be hearing today,” Tom adds. “I think you’re right, the 60s gives us that distance,” he says, addressing Aggi.
Asked what he found most challenging about the role of Jack in the Ridley Road cast, he says, “I found the scenes with Jack and Viv quite tricky; mainly because they’re all with you,” he adds, turning to Aggi and deadpanning: “I don’t get along with you.”
He goes on to explain that “it was very easy to be Jack when he’s fighting and being a lad about town, but I feel like that softer side to him that Vivien brings out in him was quite difficult,” adding that their relationship is complicated by the fact that Vivien surpasses Jack as an undercover agent: “He doesn’t like the fact that you do a better job than him.”
“That’s what I like about their story, though,” Aggi says. “It’s really not a perfect love story. They have loads of complicated feelings about each other.”
The two young actors bonded over the course of the (apparently very rainy and occasionally snowy) Ridley Road shoot, during which they both had to wear waterproof “bonnets” in-between takes (“My hair was 90 per cent hairspray so it was always on the verge of collapse,” Tom confides).
They’re now also united in their anxiety about accidentally revealing spoilers ahead of the primetime series. Asked whether Jack and Vivien’s love story ends happily, both actors miss a beat. “I get so scared about ruining it! Yeah, Vivien and Jack definitely go on a journey,” Aggi says. But as she teased earlier, “ it’s not a classic love story”.
Whether or not their on-screen counterparts have a bittersweet ending, suffice to say that Aggi O’Casey and Tom Varey’s careers are just getting started.
Ridley Road premieres on BBC One on Sunday 3rd October 2021 – take a look at the full Ridley Road soundtrack. While you’re waiting, check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight. And if you liked this Big RT Interview, head over to the section for more exclusive chats with the biggest stars.