TV Review: Dancing on the Edge – Episode One

Photo Credit: BBC/Ruby Film and Television

Dancing on the Edge – Episode One
(BBC2, first transmission 4th February 2013. TV Review by Alison Bentley)

Stephen Poliakoff’s jazz drama Dancing on the Edge begins with a question: why does apparently successful black jazz bandleader Louie Lester (Chiwetel Ejiofor) need music journalist Stanley Mitchell’s (Matthew Goode) help to flee the country? From dark jazz clubs to bright garden parties, the back story unfolds.

Poliakoff was inspired by the way the future King Edward VIII ‘hung around’ with the Ellington band in the 1930s; Episode 1 seems to be asking- was this a good thing? It’s as if everyone is dancing on the edge, caught between the 1929 crash and WW2. There’s a sense of precariousness as the fictional impoverished jazz musicians, constantly at risk of losing of work, with ensuing deportation, venture into the world of their upper class supporters. They succeed in improving the Imperial Hotel’s fortunes with their dance music, but will the innocent musicians be lured to their doom by the lavish lifestyle? (real-life jazz musicians often exhort each other to ‘eat while you can’) The wealthy are presented as more complicated and possibly predatory.

It’s as if they’re in a folk tale. US millionaire Masterson (admiring his gold in his private room) takes the musicians with his friends on a ‘picnic’; on a train journey with no known destination, a sort of social no man’s land, where the siren Pamela seduces the lower class jazz journalist/promoter, and the musicians play for their supper. In the Imperial, Lester peers through a window at the enchanted forbidden world of the hotel lounge (lavish period detail), and through a hole in the wall at forbidden Masonic rites.

The plot is driven by questions: will they find singers in time for the gig? Is manager Wesley’s deportation a plot to take over the band? Will their music be enough to lure the fashion-leading Prince of Wales into the ballroom? Will bandleader Lester be caught hiding a drunk, bruised girl in a corridor and blamed for the actions of the sinister Masterson? Will the musicians survive the institutionalised racism of the Alien Registration Office and the petty racist prejudice around them? The episodes are linked together, like music, by this tension and release, and of course by the music itself.

The incidental music is more modern minimalist. The Ellington-ish swing jazz in the band scenes is central to the drama, sometimes perhaps veering musically towards the Glen Miller era, all beautifully composed by Adrian Johnston and played by UK musicians. It’s wonderful to see some familiar jazz faces in this fascinating mixture of fantasy and realism.

So now I can’t wait for the next episode – tonight –  to answer some of these questions…

(Full list of credits on IMDB)

Categories: miscellaneous

12 replies »

  1. I thought it was excellent – but then I love Poliakoff's dramas!

    I thought the music worked well, but band scenes and incidental music. I wasn't certain if the band tunes were all new or arrangements of 1930s tunes – I didn't recognise any of them, but then it's not my period!

    I was interested to learn yesterday that Poliakoff had worked with Mike Westbrook in an earlier drama (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caught_on_a_Train), and he certainly has an understanding of the dram of music: music frequently features as an integral part of his plays. He has worked with Adrian Johnston for several years.

    I was disappointed that for a series in which music and musicians plays such a role, the BBC website doesn't mention the music or the musicians who played it, aside from a scrape of Johnston's page on Wikipedia! They are clearly missing a trick.

  2. I was hoping to see something of the musicians. All in all I found it plotless and shallow, but far preferred the second girl who sang this evening when the first one had a sore throat – not half as sore as it was going to be, judging by the linen-cupboard scene just before the (merciful) end of the episode. The script is banal beyond decription,Anthony Head's lines in particular. If this is about music, let's have some music.

  3. Geoff Williams wrote via Facebook:

    “Got to be honest, not enjoying it. I'm not particularly worried about authenticity from a jazz point of view, but as drama pure and simple it just doesn't work for me. The plot's turgid and predictable, the characters are little more than ciphers, and there's just not enough to fill two episodes, let alone five or however many there are lined up. Disappointing.”

  4. My mum says, “I like the music, but the story is not good.” She knows about these things. The acting is of a very high standard, the settings and costumes are 'Hovis ad' cosy nostalgic, the production is well executed, the music and the playing is dazzling (even if it is not exactly 'of the period'). But the saga itself is a soap opera – with an eye on the politics and dynamics of the scenario – which is rapidly degenerating into a who-dunnit, love interest farce. But that may be what the viewing public wants!

  5. I felt that it's not even about the band but the romances of Louis Lester and Stanley Mitchell, both with actresses who come across wooden and contrived. The dialogue falls flat and often I want them to shut up. The episode felt like several different snippets taped together with some basic synthesis but otherwise it felt as though there was no clear story arc. It was filled with cliches from the beginning but as I like so many of the actors involved I'll give it another go but I'm doubtful I can stay hooked. The music was pretty good, I like Angel Coulby's voice but I wished they would pan to show the rest of the band at least.

  6. Jazz Not-Jazz wrote via Facebook:

    “Hated it. Trite story line, cliche ridden, awful acting. Chiwetal, normally great looked totally embarrassed to be there and as a result was totally unconvincing.

    Great playing by the band (although the music was wrong periodwise) the trombonist who did the Tricky Sam Nanton stuff was brilliant (Andy Wood maybe?) the worst thing was the girl singer. Shockingly bad. Sounded like a West End Actress singing….and that is as insulting as you can get!!!!!!”

  7. I am afraid, as much as I would like to see jazz on television this does nothing to promote the music (why not use Ellington's music if that's what it's about!) and I have to agree that the story if trite, predictable and the acting wooden. Nice to see the gorgeous Jay Phelps on screen, but wish he had more to do and play! I'm afraid I love Borgen and The Killing and find this English costume drama all a bit trying.

  8. Take a bath sponge, get Michaelangelo to sculpt in lovingly in the shape of “David”, and then eat it. That is what waching “Dancing on the Edge” feels like- beautiful, and devoid of any substance. What is the “edge” upon which the dancing takes place?- There seems to be a complete lack of it, to the point of comatose. I know this sound harsh, but I was so looking forward to this series, and the music seems to veer between cod Andrews sisters and a sort of musical theatre Bugsy Malone tribute band. A brilliant opportunity thrown away

  9. I comment after episode 4 and I totally disagree with all commentators so far – that's probably because I am no highbrow jazz aficionado! I like who dunnit's and this is one of the best I have seen for some time. The costumes are beautiful and the music outstanding.

  10. I recommend watching the associated documentary “Swinging into the Blitz” that went out on BBC2 on Saturday 16 February. Still available on i-player. Lots of intereating facts and wonderful interviews with Frank Holder – who was there!. Also interviews with Elaine Delmar, whose father was one of the musicians to survive the Blitz bomb at the Cafe de Paris. here is the link http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01qxnq6/The_Culture_Show_Swinging_into_the_Blitz_A_Culture_Show_Special/

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