Dancing on the Edge: John Goodman, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Matthew Goode shine in Stephen Poliakoff’s stunningly designed new drama

by Matt D

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Occasionally the name of its writer or director alone will be enough to get people to watch a new television series and Stephen Poliakoff is one of those people. Over the years Poliakoff has become known for producing quality one-off dramas which include Shooting the Past, Gideon’s Daughter and Capturing Mary however he has never created a full series. That’s all changed now with Dancing on the Edge which is a five part series set around a jazz band in early 1930s London and is based on a story that Poliakoff has been eager to tell since researching his critically acclaimed drama The Lost Prince. While reading around the drama, which dealt with the death of the youngest son of George V, he learn that the king’s other sons frequently went to jazz clubs and often befriended the band-leaders who just happened to be black. It was the idea of the white nobility rubbing shoulders with black jazz musicians that Poliakoff wanted to explore in more detail and in Dancing on the Edge he does just that.

Matthew Goode anchors the drama as Stanley Mitchell seemingly the only writer for The Music Express and whose job appears to be seeking out new acts for various venues. Seeking out a jazz act for the Imperial Hotel he comes across the Louis Lester Band a very lively ensemble led by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s charismatic frontman. Louis is quick to wise up to the fact that Stanley didn’t actually hear them play but the offer of a gig at The Imperial is too good to turn down. What Stanley hasn’t told Louis is that the reserved patrons of The Imperial have never heard jazz music before let alone performed by black musicians and indeed their performance does see some of the guests retreat to their rooms. However the performance is a success thanks to the attendance of Anthony Head’s jazz aficionado Donaldson who books them for one of his upcoming garden parties however he does suggest they get a singer. In classic dramatic fashion it is the last two singers to be heard, in the form of Angel Coulby’s Jessie and Wunmi Mosaku’s Carla, that end up getting the part.

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The garden party that Donaldson booked them for had a special guest in the form of Prince George, the fourth son of King George V, who is a big jazz music fan and enjoys being serenaded by Jessie. Also at the garden party Louis gets close to Sarah a society photographer who attempts to capture his portrait several times and later on in the episode the two have a very obvious moment together. There may well be romance on the horizon for Stanley, whose love life usually consists of a quick fumble with his secretary at the office, as the elegant Pamela catches his eye however I get a feeling this relationship will end in tears. One of the reasons for that is Pamela’s brother Julian who comes across as a reckless individual and is easily swayed by power and money. This is evident in his adoration of American businessman Masterson, played by John Goodman, who is one of the only men to have made money during the Wall Street Crash but also has a penchant for violence. We learn this in a scene in which Julian enlists Louis’ help in getting a bruised young girl out of Masterson’s room something that the latter later regrets as he wonders how it would look to the outside world.

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Thankfully there’s better news for Louis when the band’s contract with The Imperial is extended for four months with them all being moved in to rooms at the top of the hotel even though they are still being treated like second class citizens. Indeed Louis worries that the band’s manager Wesley will drag them down especially when he breaks the rules about bringing guests back to his room and it is this bad behaviour that will cost him dearly when the immigration authorities start sniffing around. This episode also contains Masterson taking the whole band and their inner circle on a train ride which advances the romantic storyline while at the same time makes us question the mysterious American more and more. As the first episode comes to an end The Louis Lester Band has seemingly got the seal of approval from the highest authority in the land however judging by the opening scene of the episode, which is set 18 months in the future, not everything works out in the way it should.

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The one thing you can always say about Stephen Poliakoff’s dramas is that they’re always exceptionally well-designed and Dancing on the Edge is no exception. The 1930s jazz scene seems like an ideal setting for Poliakoff to thrive as he switches the action from the dingy underground jazz bars to the splendour of the ballroom at the Imperial Hotel. All of the sets are incredibly well-designed whether it be Stanley’s cramped office or Masterson’s extravagant train with its luxurious layout perfect for picnics on the move. The mood of the time is also enhanced with the brilliant jazz music which had all been composed for the drama by BAFTA and Emmy award-winning composer Adrian Johnston. His songs are perfectly bought to life by the talented musicians as well as via the vocal talents of Merlin’s Angel Coulby who apparently hadn’t told her agent she could sing prior to auditioning for the part.

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The one problem with this first episode is the large amount of different characters that Poliakoff introduces us to and in particular their motives which are in some cases unclear. For example Masterson, who is brilliantly played by John Goodman, obviously likes to knock women around a bit and also hoard gold on his train but we never quite know what his interest is in terms of the jazz group. Similarly Donaldson is another curious chap who acts as a father figure to Pamela, Julian and Sarah but obviously has his own yet to be revealed motives. Thankfully Poliakoff has given us two very likeable lead characters in Stanley and Louis both of whom are bought to life brilliantly by Goode and Ejiofor. Goode does seem to be slightly channelling Michael Caine in his portrayal of the workaholic music editor however I think this down-to-Earth character was the perfect choice to anchor the series as he is someone who you care about following even though you realise he’ll probably be manipulated along the way. Ejiofor also excels as the grounded and intelligent band leader whose rise to fame will inevitably be his undoing and as we see in the opening scenes he has obviously been involved in something terrible and now needs to flee. The supporting cast are also great with special mention going to Coulby and Mosaku’s singing double act and Mel Smith’s long-in-the-tooth hotel owner.

Overall it appears to me as if Poliakoff has produced another triumph as Dancing on the Edge is a sumptuous piece of drama that has plenty to keep me interested. The cast, on the whole, are excellent at playing these diverse and interesting characters even though some are awfully frustrating. The design of Dancing on the Edge is spectacular as are the songs performed by the Louis Lester Band throughout the series. Now all the characters and plots have been established it’ll be interesting to see where the series goes next however I’ll definitely be along for the ride as long as I can stay in that room on Masterson’s train with all the gold in it.

What did you think to Dancing on the Edge? Did you enjoy it as much as I did? Leave Your Comments Below.