Tamzin Outhwaite is probably best known for her role as Mel Owen in BBC soap, 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 Ridley Road.
The four-part drama is streaming on BBCiPlayer in the UK and premieres on PBS Masterpiece in May.
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 and gets a job in Barbara’s salon. Vivien soon discovers that Jack has infiltrated the NSM — working undercover for the Jewish resistance organization The 62 Group. When he goes missing she’s forced to go undercover herself.
Here, Tamzin Outhwaite talks more about her role in Ridley Road...
What's your Ridley Road character Barbara Watson like?
“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 realized 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.”
What was it like filming in London's East End?
“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.”
What was it like playing a hair salon owner?
“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. The gossip and socializing that must happen, the atmosphere. I’ll say that I was the ‘shenanigator’ – organizing 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. 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 colors, 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 on 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 realize she’s not just those things but she’s also intelligent, wise and a brilliant actress. 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.”
How was it playing the mother of a mixed-race son 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."
“I grew up around many Jewish people, in a very Jewish area. I always knew that there was a lot of prejudice, but I didn’t realize 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 Blackshirts and fascists arriving at Ridley Road market, so I found out an awful lot from my Dad.”
What do you hope audiences 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.
“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."
More related Ridley Road content
- Agnes O’Casey interview — "It’s a really important story for now"
- Rory Kinnear interview: "Colin continued his diatribe of hate until the end"
- Tracy-Ann Oberman Ridley Road interview: "Nancy is brave, fearless and clever"
- Danny Hatchard reveals the motivations behind his Ridley Road character
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