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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)

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