Having been mightily impressed by Stephen Poliakoff’s previous television output, rare but often brilliant, your reviewer came to Dancing on the Edge with high expectations. Saturday nights now tell the story of the rise in fortune of a black jazz band in 1930s London. There is certainly a Gatsby-esque air about the show, evident from the opening titles, with the art-deco font and toe-tapping background music. We are immediately drawn into a world of danger and intrigue, before promptly sticking to – what is now almost commonplace – the winning formula of revealing that this is merely a flashforward to later in the series, and we now find out the story of these mysterious men starting 18 months earlier.
As a production, the attention to detail is excellent. The wealth sets and precision of the costumes seem much more realistic than, say, ITV’s poor relation Mr. Selfridge. Poliakoff’s dialogue is also for the most part a joy – too much in television drama is everything explained to the point of idiocy to the audience, there is enough subtlety and ambiguity in his characters’ musings to acknowledge our intelligence. Indeed the cast boasts an array of fabulous stars, from up-and-coming, to old faves, to the Hollywood superstar: you’re unlikely to elsewhere find Jenna-Louise Coleman together with Mel Smith and John Goodman than in a Poliakoff drama!
Yet something does not sit quite right in terms of the drama’s feel. From the start, we know that there is plotting and illicit activity ahead – perhaps not for several months, but this is not just a Call the Midwife style kitchen-sink drama. Like the first series of BBC2’s The Hour and indeed Poliakoff’s most recent work Glorious 39, concerning a government conspiracy surrounding appeasement on the eve of World War II, we, the audience, much prefer the emotional plight of its characters, than having to rely on suspense and conspiracy. The most striking piece in the 90-minute opener was Wesley’s total self-destruction as he faced deportation, trashing the hotel and any hope of saving his own life. More of this sort of drama, and less of the typical evil business magnates would be a pleasant improvement for the next episode.
It is also striking to consider this in relation to Lincoln, another story claiming to explore the struggle for black rights. Certainly I felt more engaged with the jazz band’s plight and treatment than in the civil war drama, despite their actually being enslaved in 1860s America as opposed to 1930s Britain. One might remember how last year’s Oscar-nominated The Help was playfully subtitled by the media ‘White People Solve Racism’; in fact, this is how Lincoln feels in comparison to Dancing on the Edge, in which you truly feel the pain of the discrimination the band faces.
Although slightly on the long side, the rest of the episodes (four more) are only 60 minutes, slightly more manageable for the Oxford student, who can barely spare even that for the telly. As openers go, there was just enough substance with the full complement of style to warrant a continued viewing. As long as it doesn’t descend into full-on 1930s spy caper and retains its intimate domestic feel, I look forward to the rest of this original and intense drama.