‘Dancing on the Edge’: Episode 1 review

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Stephen Poliakoff returns to BBC Two with a new five-part drama following the fortunes of a 1930’s black jazz band. Despite having a long history of creating one-off dramas for the corporation, this is the first time the master storyteller has turned his hand to a serial drama.

The stellar cast, headed by Chiwetel Ejiofor (The Shadow Line) and Matthew Goode (Watchmen) is chock full of CultBox favourites, from Merlin’s Angel Coulby, Anthony Head and Janet Montgomery to Doctor Who new girl Jenna-Louise Coleman and even John Goodman.

The tale begins with a simple framing device; a troubled Louis Lester (Ejiofor) comes to writer Stanley Mitchell (Goode) needing to leave the country. While we don’t initially discover of what he may be accused, this leads to reminiscences of how the Louis Lester Band reached its heights and of Mitchell’s hand in their rise to fame on the society party circuit though his journal ‘Music Express’.

Once discovered, and with the patronage of Donaldson (Head) and his children, the band becomes resident at a fashionable hotel owned by Mr Schlesinger (Mel Smith). Attracting the attentions of members of the aristocracy, their world is opened to a range of new experiences including the influence of a charismatic, if troubled, American businessman Mr Masterson (Goodman).

On a fascinating picnic away from the city Janet Montgomery’s Sarah photographs the band and appears to form an emotional connection with Lester. It is not all plain sailing though, as their manager falls foul of the immigration service and his actions at the hotel threaten to cause trouble for them all.

The first 90 minute episode is full of trademark Poliakoff moments, with still images telling the story in places, and some wonderfully grand moments such as the band’s arrival at the hotel. The score, from long time Poliakoff collaborator Adrian Johnston, is beautiful and dovetails well with some impressive jazz moments from the band. Musically, the real revelation here is Angel Coulby who not only looks stunning as the shy vocalist Jessie, but dominates with her frankly amazing voice.

Doctor Who fans can look out for new companion Jenna-Louise Coleman, featuring in a supporting role as Rosie, the girlfriend and colleague of Stanley Mitchell at the Music Express’ office.

With a broad canvas and five episodes to play with, Poliakoff has the opportunity to tackle wider themes than just the music. The 1930s era is very much one of contrasts, with the state and the prevailing racist attitudes of society ranged against the performers as they receive adulation for their music from the upper classes, and even royal patronage.

With its blend of compelling storytelling, sumptuous period production values and toe-tapping music, Dancing on the Edge has us hooked for what looks to be a thrilling ride.

Airs at 9pm on Monday 4 February 2013 on BBC Two.

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