fri 12/07/2024

Dancing on the Edge, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Dancing on the Edge, BBC Two

Dancing on the Edge, BBC Two

Stephen Poliakoff's bloated epic ain't got that swing

Matthew Goode and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 'Dancing on the Edge'

There is a sequence – quite a long sequence – in the first episode of Dancing on the Edge in which the main characters are all guests on a train. The passengers are curious to know their destination, only it turns out there isn’t one. This is a pleasure trip with no particular place to go. An hour and a half into Stephen Poliakoff’s latest portrait of English manners and mores, boy do you know how they feel.

It’s impossible to fault Dancing on the Edge for ambition. Given five episodes to tell of a black jazz band bringing swing to London’s upper echelons in the early 1930s, Poliakoff has been granted the keys to the schedules like few other television auteurs this side of Alan Bleasdale. Yes, this is ostensibly a period drama based partly on research, but as Britain frets about fresh waves of immigrants, Dancing on the Edge itches to hold up a mirror to the present day. And along the way there is quite a bit to enjoy. Adrian Johnston’s original music is a blast. The costumes are simply divine. It is all atmospherically shot (by Ashley Rowe). And yet, and yet... something profound has gone AWOL. Thus far at least, Dancing on the Edge is basically The Paradise with a hip brass section.

We start promisingly, with the immaculately togged Louis Lester (Chiwetel Ejiofor) calling one night on old chum Stanley (Matthew Goode). He’s in need of help, but no sooner does the whiff of a friendship gone sour waft across the nostrils than we spool back to the pair’s first meeting. Stanley, it turns out, is a crafty glottal-stopping larrikin who runs a music rag and, hearing of an exotic combo called the Louis Lester Band, helps champion them into a gig at a smart hotel. The doddery clients in tiaras and floor-length crinoline aren’t quite ready for (period terminology alert) "coloured" musicians setting off a fearful racket, but a group of bright young flappers (pictured above right) swiftly adopt them. An emollient cove (Anthony Head) is also on hand to oil the wheels, and soon they are playing for royalty – first the Duke of Kent, and by the end of the episode the Prince of Wales.

There are hints of darkness along the way. The band’s manager (Ariyon Bakare), apparently American but claiming to be Welsh, is one of those querulous types (contrast with the unflappable Lester) and is threatened with deportation. The hotel owner (Mel Smith, would you believe) is a hard-nosed sceptic, while in the background a shady American billionaire (John Goodman) trashes hotel rooms and throws his money at underwritten young squeezes. One does hope Goodman opens his mouth at some point, because currently he looks like a very expensive extra.

And yet for all the teeming canvas, from bosomy secretaries to stiff-necked officials, this is very far from being the post-Dickensian panorama it thinks it is. Having set up a promising mise-en-scène, Poliakoff seems to have nothing original to say either about the ruling classes or the position of black people in Thirties England. And with so many nice white chaps behave so jolly tolerantly, the script feels fundamentally mendacious about the ingrained racism of the era. Most characters appear fashioned from a compound of balsawood and tissue paper – Joanna Vanderham’s vampish nonentity Pamela, Tom Hughes’s nice but dim Julian, the two female singers (Wunmi Mosaku and Angel Coulby, above pictured left) the band is encouraged to take on after a scrupulously hackneyed audition scene. Even the hotel ballroom lacks character.

Throw in photography, Russian émigrés and royalty, and it’s as if Poliakoff is simply rifling through old obsessions. The result feels gruellingly bland, bizarrely uncurious and often plain cloth-eared. It says everything that Poliakoff's phobic approach that he reports a nefarious masonic gathering but shows only brief glimpses of it through a spyhole.

Somewhere inside this bloated, slow-coach colossus, a taut and intriguing smaller drama has been throttled. It stars Goode’s unreadable Svengali, who is shaping up to be a treat, and Ejiofor, who could bring weight and integrity to the phone book. Hey, it may warm up. The characters may acquire flesh and blood and things to say. But for now, Dancing on the Edge don't mean a thing.

Jasper Rees on Twitter

Somewhere inside this slow-coach colossus, a taut and intriguing smaller drama has been throttled


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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"And with so many nice white chaps behave so jolly tolerantly, the script feels fundamentally mendacious about the ingrained racism of the era. " Really ? That sounds almost the opposite of the drama I watched. In fact the portrayal of the era is really rather negative. There is a lot going on in this ; I enjoyed it a lot.

Sorry, Anonymous, but it's typical of the drama as a whole that we are told about people walking out of Robeson's Othello but not shown it. Not one of the main white characters is shown to be remotely intolerant. And show is what good drama is meant to do. Not tell.

Fascinating to read how differently this series has been received. Up until tonight's episode (4), I found it engaging albeit with a steadily growing feeling that period research had taken a bit of a back seat. For example, that steam train so clearly on a modern restored steam railway with no other traffic: even an American millionaire couldn't have persuaded one of the Big Four railway companies of the 1930s to clear a whole line of other traffic for many hours! Even worse was the New Year's Eve party in tonight's episode set in an unheated stable block with plenty of bare female skin on show, followed by a walk in a deciduous English wood in full leaf at the end of the coldest December (1933) for 43 years! And I won't allow anyone to brush this aside as petty nitpicking. All drama relies on the suspension of disbelief and such cynically sloppy film making caused this to evaporate in an instant. Such a shame as the acting is excellent and, as has been said, the costumes and interiors are spot on. Overall, a real let down after such great expectations from a great film maker.

Think this review is spot on. Its not as terrible as some TV dramas, but nowhere near as good as 'Spies of Warsaw' for example. There's nothing new in it, just a story that threatens to get told but ultimately doesn't get going. And there isn't much dancing either! Instead of investing so much time, money and air time the Beeb could have used it more productively on new writers.

Lighten up everyone this is entertainment for a cold windy February. Looks great sounds good and is well acted. What the BBC does best and enjoyable music too.

I disagree with this review completely and wonder if we watched the same programme? I thought it was excellent, brilliantly directed, and I shall certainly be following it.

Completely agree (with Anonymous not Jasper Rees). Glorious and grand, faintly elegiac and pleasingly oblique. Nice to watch drama that doesn't feel the need to explain everything just to be sure you really do understand what's going on.

Buh ?? you must have been watching a diffferent programme It is amateurish and looks like a badly acted high school play .... all the interminable obligatory cigarettes in every mouth and the constant one hand in pocket posed walk ... are they moves that are supposed to make all the males look cool .. and the girls look hip? .....they just end up looking affected and uncouth and as for the 2 singers ... the one is nauseatingly un jazzy - and the other looks like an inept wobbly fawning younger sister and as for yet another ghastly attempt at a Prince of Wales ?????????? i have given up ... 2 episodes and i knew it was time for another channel

I agree with Jasper Rees' review : I looked forward with anticipation to this "big" drama, and was bitterly disappointed after the first episode. The script appeared to have written by a group of 15 year olds, so predictable, so trite. Perhaps the BBC drama stasi had watered down Poliakoff's words to an anodyne nothingness. Full marks though to costume, music, & photography..... it was a wonderful evocation of 30's culture.

To me,as a student of pre war popular music since becoming disenchanted with pop and rock in 1967,the big diasappointment with this ambitious production WAS the music. There were parallels here with "pennies from Heaven",what with a Jazz enthusiast running a mag. and the depiction of London nightlife. Maybe Poliakoff wanted to distance himself from all this by making it all rather unrealistic and NOT playing any '30's style music. The featured music was a dreadful mish-mash,with nobody actually appearing to be playing their instruments and the singers were performing(or were they miming?) a sort of hybrid style emanating from the '40's,50's and 1990's ! Well it's a personal opinion but I think a production like this is crying out for some more authentic-sounding music,with perhaps one or two 'standards' thrown in,like "Stormy Weather" (popularised by Ethel Waters,a black singer).

Thank you for this comment. I thought I was the only one who notice. I am trying to like the show but the music is a big put off for me....and dare I say the singing...

I started watching this series with anticipation.Until Mel Smith appeared in his role,the acting generally was wooden,boring and predictable.Suddenly,after Mel's appearance,the production livened up.Did he perhaps have a word in the actors' ear behind the sets? Not a bad stab at the 30s costumes and sets.There was quite a good story behind the disjointed production/acting. I shall keep watching.

With so much rubbish on TV, you'd think people would be grateful to watch this. I'm enjoying it..

There is a semiological problem with this review - as if everything is expected to be on the nose as it would be in, say, Call the Midwife or Lewis. Mr Rees is being too literal (which is a habit we don't take into the theatre with us and should not impose on drama which just happens to be on television.) Poliakoff's ambitions are high and the stylisation needs analysis, not impatience. There is a reason for this tableau-vivant approach and I find the exquisite placement of actors and objects quite brilliant so far. Poliakoff's painful observations about the truth of our nature and our motivations are this time threaded through with ideas about the way that art and creativity functions. Those "Tate" sugar cartons in the audition scenes (and others) aren't there entirely for decoration you know...

Maybe it was the title? BBC mandarins thought anything with Dance in its title would prove popular. That so much money has been spent on a series that has nothing to say about racism, immigration, jazz, the aristocracy or Americanization is summed up by how it also had nothing to say about the role of the Masons on pre-war Britain. "Oh I say, do come and see this, if you look through this hole you can glimpse a real drama taking place." That's enough now. Back to this parade of posh totties and noble coloured folks.

I am enjoying this. The main band members come over very well as individuals and in no sense stereotypes, as do the other protagonists. Although perhaps not totally accurate in some ways, the strange hiatus at this time between the two wars slowly becoming a increasingly malignant with the rise of the nazis and effects of the depression is beautifully portrayed. All the characters have a bit of a surprise in them. The blonde sister, although she continually professes her lack of talent, evidently has a pretty good grasp of the situation while others are much more wrapped up in themselves. This is why I find Poliakoff interesting - he really respects humans as individuals and you feel that they are not all just ciphers reacting to events - snares tighten around isolated characters but they are the responsibility of others. Spiders and flies in a tightening web. The person you might judge to be the most superficial may in fact not be at all. There are lots of relationships between people portrayed, not just romantic. If it is inaccurate in some ways, the central focus of the radio is very accurate - my father said it was on in hotels a lot at this time. I like the slower pace and no advertisements. I just hope it is not going to end tragically but will definitely stay with it until the end.

Great drama. Portrays this gradually becoming malignant hiatus between the two wars very well, as the depression and rise of the nazis begin to take their toll. The characters are individual and full of suprises. The most superficial in some ways have evidently grasped the situation better than those you might judge to have a better take on things. A tightening web of human intrigue where people are not just reacting to events, but are also responsible for them. The slow pace is a relief after NCIS and the like which actually make me feel a bit nauseous because they flash about so much. Human relationships displayed in all their variety and people being given proper weight as part of their own destinies. Really good stuff.

I had high expectataions and I am still watching - just hoping something will happen. Its like Agatha Christie without the tension.It's so willfully slow and ponderous - who are we supposed to care about?Who's story is it?Are we supposed to be terribly moved by the murder of a characher we had very little insight into?(and who wasn't I'm afraid to say , beyond an average singer). I agree with earlier comment about sloppy period referencing - tokenistic wanderings through woods, villages with fireworks displays (Really? In 1930's?), Writing urgent articles on the roof (why?) sitting and playing chess on the floor - so affected! Perhaps the laid back, floppy energy of the charachters with no real ambition or empathy is what it IS all about - the lethargy of the upper classes in the face of European turmoil and finacial crashes. More real charachter truth would be fantastic, and less visually pleasing but implausable scenes would be great. And when do the band actually practice? Thank you.

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