Why TV Show 'Dancing on the Edge' Will Get You Jazzed Up

Michael Handelzalts
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Michael Handelzalts

It’s been said that there’s not much fun when the s*** hits the fan. However it turns out that there is, especially for Web aficionados, when it hits the American TV screen and eludes the “bleep” that tries to block it.

The Golden Globes acceptance speech of actress Jacqueline Bisset (for Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Miniseries or TV Movie) was long (by live broadcast standards), somewhat rambling and ended with her sharing with the audience the sage advice she’d got from her mother: “I want to thank the people who have given me joy, and there have been many. And the people who have given me s***, I say it like my mother … what did she say? She used to say, ‘Go to hell, and don’t come back.’”

Bisset’s speech went viral on the Internet. Bisset has since explained that she had not gone bonkers, nor was she drunk. She was merely confused by the category she had been nominated in, and was surprised at winning. But her one unbleeped s-word managed almost to steal the show from the miniseries itself (which had been nominated but didn’t win): “Dancing on the Edge,” written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff.

“Dancing on the Edge” was produced by the BBC and takes place in London (in the years 1931-1933), although it was filmed on location in Birmingham. BBC2 screened the six episodes in February-March 2013; the American channel Starz in October 2013; and, since last Thursday, it can be viewed in Israel on HOT VOD (more on that later).

The Prince and the Duke

The nucleus for the series’ inception, Poliakoff explained, was a historical-social-musical incident: In the 1930s, Duke Ellington and his Orchestra had played in London, and one of its fans was the then Prince of Wales, who befriended the American musician and even played the drums with him. Poliakoff’s series is about a band of Afro-American jazz musicians, led by the charismatic (fictional) pianist and leader Louis Lester (Chiwetel Ejiofor), which takes London by storm, with a lot of help from ambitious music journalist Stanley Mitchell (Matthew Goode), plays at a fancy hotel and hobnobs with royalty, until events spiral out of control and tragedy strikes (in ways I can tell you nothing about, for fear of spoiling your future viewing pleasure).

It is about a particular kind of music, in a particular time, in a very special place. The story of blues and jazz – with its Afro-American roots and “wild” and progressive nature – as performed by mostly black musicians, in front of mostly white, and often patronizing, patrons in the United States has been told many times. Poliakoff relocates it to London, which makes the musicians working migrants, who have to renew their permits to stay in the country every week and are in constant danger of being deported if they cannot prove they are employed (and are being hunted by the immigration authorities).

It also adds a touch of class to the story. The band is sought after by, and popular with, the younger (in body or soul) and more daring set (of aristocrats and royals), and at the same time they are looked down upon, snubbed, hated and treated haughtily by the various officials (policemen and hoteliers, and even regular audiences of the fictitious Imperial Hotel where they play).

These are the early ‘30s, and Louis and Mitchell know full well that, for the Nazis, jazz is a decadent and forbidden music, and a black musician is something to be neither seen nor heard. And yet, as a prank, they book Louis to lead a mixed-color jazz band at a German embassy party to celebrate Hitler’s election as chancellor. The English aristocrats enjoy the spectacle of German diplomats leaving their own party at the sight and sound of the band. But when the plot thickens – there is a murder – the local, British racism rears its ugly head. The clues should lead the detective to suspect a white person, but somehow the black protagonist is on the run.

Romantic angles

“Dancing on the Edge” is mainly, though, about the characters: the ever calm, collected, suave and extremely handsome Louis (played by Ejiofor of “12 years a Slave” fame), and his involvement with Sarah (Janet Montgomery), a young photographer, the English-born daughter of a refugee from Russia. The music journalist Mitchell and his love affair with a society girl, Pamela (played by Joanna Vanderham; the mini-subplot involving her and her brother and mother deserves special interest), is the story’s other romantic angle.

In the BBC-screened version, the final, sixth, episode comprised interviews seemingly conducted by Stanley with Louis, and chats between some other characters that had added background stories to the characters. John Goodman plays an American business tycoon, Walter Masterson, with a lot of interest in the media, especially photojournalism – made in the mold of the late newspaper proprietor Robert Maxwell, with a surprisingly softer side to his personality. And Bisset is charming and heartwarming as Lady Lavinia Cremone, a wealthy recluse (who had lost three sons in the Great War) who initially opens up and helps the band, as long as it doesn’t demand too much of her.

I’ve not mentioned even half of the characters, big and small, who make up the series’ fascinating tapestry, and have said nothing about the meticulousness with which recreating the sense of period and place was done: you will have to see for yourself.

Last, but far from least: The mini-series hasn’t been programmed by HOT for screening in Israel, so you don’t have to mark a day in the week and an hour in the day for weeks to come. It is offered on VOD free – HD or regular – so you can view it at your leisure. You can do it as I did, in one six-hour viewing during the weekend, or program the four 90-minute installments – as it is offered here – as you like it, and to pause, repeat and rewind at will.

And there is also a bonus: The original music, written – tunes and lyrics – by Adrian Johnston, as performed by the Louis Lester Band. Two excellent actresses play Jessie and Carla (the singers in the fictional band), Angel Coulby and Wunmi Mosaku. They sang in the series, beautifully, for the first time in their acting careers. This is the soundtrack I’ve been listening to while writing.

“Dancing on the Edge” is available via HOT VOD.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a charismatic jazz pianist. Credit: AP
Jacqueline Bisset as Lady Cremone in a scene from' Dancing On the Edge.'Credit: AP