Dancing on the Edge – Review

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Dancing on the Edge

BBC One, Monday, February 4, 9pm

Jazz. At extreme risk of sounding like an old fogey, I’d take a wild stab in the dark and guess that many of today’s younger generation would stick their noses up at it like a bad smell, in favour of glitch, shoegaze or whatever the son de jour happens to be. In all fairness, I’d probably join them. But back in the early twentieth century jazz really was the rock and roll, punk or grime of its day. With its booming brass ‘n bass, rapid rhythms and overt sexuality, it upset the establishment.

Given that jazz was mostly played by people of Afro-Caribbean descent, it also upset the demented sensibility of a society where racism was still as overt as the sun in the sky. An early scene in Dancing on the Edge captures such absurdity perfectly, as the Louis Lester Band (led by the always glorious Chiwetel Ejiofor) reluctantly accepts a gig at one of London’s more conservative hotels, takes to the stage and lets rip. The stuffy clientele, all white, all trussed up in dinner jackets and evening gowns, clink their soup bowls, mutter their discontent and begin to make their exits.

Fortunately the band have two very influential backers: Matthew Goode’s roguish reporter, reviewer, editor and pretty much everything else at the (not new) Music Express and the ultra-connected Donaldson, played by the ever brilliant Anthony Head. With their help, the hotel gig becomes a regular and Louis Lester and his men – with the fresh addition of two female vocalists – become favourites of Prince George and US acting royalty in the fine form of John Goodman.

In less accomplished hands, this could all have turned into a glitzy production about the band’s triumphant rise to fame, but as Dancing on the Edge is written and directed by Steven Poliakoff, things were never going to be so tame. We already know that the story is going to end on a downbeat note, thanks to a prologue set 18 months ahead of the events we witness that sizzles with intrigue and mistrust. The question now is how Poliakoff is going to take us
there.

Apparently some people struggled with the first episode, complaining that it was too long and boring. To them I would simply advise sticking to more remedial fare like Doctor Who or Spooks, where everything is clearly signposted for you and wrapped up neatly in less than an hour. If the aforementioned are akin to webisodes, then Dancing on the Edge is like a great novel that allows its characters and their motivations to develop at a natural pace.

Apart from a smidgen of liberal guff, nothing in it feels forced, the powerhouse cast are all at the top of their game and the payoff at the end of episode two has really whet the appetite for the next three nights. And, despite what I said earlier, even the jazz numbers are great. Nice…

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