Skip to main content

Ex-‘EastEnders’ star Tamzin Outhwaite on ‘Ridley Road’ — 'I felt like it was really my hair salon'

Here, with a 1960s beehive hairdo, is Tamzin Outhwaite as hair salon owner Barbara Watson in 'Ridley Road'.
Here, with a 1960s beehive hairdo, is Tamzin Outhwaite as hair salon owner BHere, with a 1960s beehive hairdo, is Tamzin Outhwaite as hair salon owner Barbara Watson in 'Ridley Road'.arbara in 'Ridley Road'. (Image credit: BBC)

Tamzin Outhwaite is probably best known for her role as Mel Owen in EastEnders but you're about to see her in East London again, this time stepping back to the 1960s, as she plays hair salon owner Barbara Watson in BBC1's Ridley Road

The four-part drama begins on BBC1 on Sunday Oct. 3 at 9pm, with all four episodes then streaming on BBCiPlayer. It will be shown in the US on PBS Masterpiece and we'll update with the American release date in due course.

Events are set in 1962 when support for the neo-Nazi group The National Socialist Movement (NSM) and its leader, Colin Jordan (Rory Kinnear) was gathering momentum.

A young Jewish girl Vivien Epstein (Agnes O’Casey) follows her lover Jack (Tom Varey) from Manchester to London where she gets a job in Barbara’s salon. Vivien soon discovers that Jack has infiltrated the NSM, working undercover for the Jewish resistance organisation The 62 Group, and when he goes missing she’s forced to go undercover herself. 

Here, Tamzin Outhwaite talks more about her role in Ridley Road...

Tamzin Outhwaite on her 'Ridley Road' character Barbara Watson…

“Barbara is a hairdresser who owns and runs Oscar’s hair salon,” says Tamzin Outhwaite. “I’ve made up this backstory that she names Oscar’s after the father of her son, who was possibly in the Navy and she got pregnant from a very short relationship, but was very much in love with him. He was obviously the love of her life and she named her salon after him.

"When I read the scripts and realised it was written by Sarah Solemani, who I’m a massive fan of, I had to take part. She said that when she was writing the role, she always had Barbara in her head being played by me. The script in itself was brilliant. I knew that it was based on the book by Jo Bloom, so I read the book, which I thought was incredible. Then I looked at the cast of actors which at the time, consisted of Rory Kinnear, Eddie Marsan, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Danny Hatchard and Sam Spiro, it was really a no brainer.”

Tamzin on filming the London East End location and in the hair salon...

Ridley Road as a market was somewhere my mum used to take me all through my childhood and my dad knew lots of the market traders,” says Tamzin. “The East End of London, Hackney, was somewhere I was very familiar with and Ridley Road market held a lot of fond memories for me.” 

“I loved being in the salon. It took a while for me to actually feel like I owned it, but by the end I felt like it was really my hair salon and I was a hairdresser. Smoking in a salon in those days was such a sign of the times during the early 1960s, and so representative of how it was. You would be doing someone’s hair whilst smoking and then spraying hairspray everywhere. I just loved that because it was a moment in time we obviously don’t experience in these times. It’s the atmosphere of the place. I imagine that in the early 60s, women coming to get their hair done and getting out of the house and away from chores was a real treat. The gossip and socialising that must happen, the atmosphere. I’ll say that I was the ‘shenanigator’ – organising shenanigans – that’s what felt really good. Barbara is like the nucleus of the place, which encourages women to come and have a brilliant time while they’re having their hair done.

"The set design was incredible. Firstly, I loved my hair. When the hair and makeup team told me what they were doing and showed me the pieces, it just transformed me back to that time. I have photos of my mum in those times and when we were on the set, I saw so many photographs that could have been my mum with those haircuts. It all looked familiar. The colours, the oranges, the browns, and the swirls, the designs are incredible. It’s been a real treat to be on a set like that, I don’t do much period work and the 1960s felt like home.”

Tamzin Outhwaite as Mel Owen EastEnders.

Ridley Road star Tamzin Outhwaite as Mel Owen EastEnders. (Image credit: BBC)

Tamzin on her 'Ridley Road' co-star Agnes O’Casey… 

“Working with Agnes is just a treat. It’s her first job. When we first started working together, I thought that she’s a real talent and one to watch,” says Tamzin. “She’s still very fresh, humble, open and wide-eyed. In the short amount of time I’ve had with her, you realise she’s not just those things but she’s also intelligent, wise and a brilliant actress. It feels like a real treat and a pleasure to have seen her grow throughout this job and I know that in the future I’m going to hear people talking about her and I’ll be able to say, “I was with her on her first job”. Agnes didn’t need taking under anyone’s wing, she really holds her own. But it was a pleasure to work with her. I still feel like I’m Agnes’ age but I’m twice her age, so it was really lovely hanging out with her. We laughed a lot but also, she’s an enchanting actress so she drew me in. She’s very special.” 

Vivien Epstein.

Agnes O'Casey as Vivien Epstein in 'Ridley Road'. (Image credit: BBC/Red Productions/Ben Blackall)

Tamzin on playing the mother of mixed race Stevie at a time when racism was rife…

“Barbara has got used to the racism that happens to her son, but it doesn’t become any less heart-breaking. I think she’s still broken every time he gets beaten up, chucked in a cell or there’s some kind of racist comment,” says Tamzin. “Never mind the actual violence and prejudice that goes with him being born into a family where the mother is white and in a predominantly white set-up with the home and business. It’s really gut-wrenching for Barbara to experience her son going through this, but at the same time it becomes second nature for her. She spends a lot of time licking his wounds, quite literally and patching him up.

“I spoke to my dad about the era because he seems to remember ‘Black shirts and fascists’ coming down the market. My dad was a black cab driver and in those times was one of the only non-Jewish black cab drivers around. I grew up around many Jewish people, in a very Jewish area. We were the only non-Jewish people on our street, so all my friends were Jewish. I always knew that there was a lot of prejudice, but I didn’t realise how bad it was in the 1960s. When I spoke to my dad about it, he was telling me that a lot of his friends were market traders in those days. He remembers fascists arriving to Ridley Road, so I found out an awful lot from my Dad.” 

Fascist leader Colin Jordan, played by Rory Kinnear, in 'Ridley Road'.

Fascist leader Colin Jordan, played by Rory Kinnear, in 'Ridley Road'. (Image credit: BBC)

Tamzin on what she hopes audiences in Britain and America will take away from 'Ridley Road'… 

“I hope audiences take away the sense that not long ago, this kind of fascism was going on,” says Tamzin. “It’s actually extremely poignant at the moment, it’s very apt. As well as the style, the acting and the brilliant writing, the message is that this is still going on and this was in 1962 and it’s still happening. I suppose I would like them to take home that this is a great piece of work and remember maybe, that I was in it.

“The 1960s are a very attractive era. I’m sure Americans will think, That’s the Beatles, that’s this era. All around the world, I should imagine that London in the 1960s was a really expressive time and place. When you see the design, the hair, the costumes, and the writing I think it will be a triumph. People should watch Ridley Road because the story comes from truth. Agnes, who plays the lead, is fantastic and the women in it are full of style and chutzpah."