Dancing on the Edge: TV Review

"Dancing on the Edge" starts Saturday on Starz.
How the love of jazz pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable between races and classes in upper-crust British society -- and how loyalties are easy to suss out when things go sideways.

Starz airs British miniseries about jazz, race and class as seen through the lens of Stephen Poliakoff and brought to life with elegant performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Janet Montgomery.

Stephen Poliakoff has been one of Britain’s great dramatists since the late 1970s, a master of making compelling movies and miniseries for the small screen, including The Lost Prince (three Emmys including best miniseries), Friends and Crocodiles and Gideon’s Daughter (two Golden Globes and a Peabody).

He’s one of those writers and directors that British critics seem to tire of at some point because, who knows, maybe because he’s not American. But his latest miniseries, Dancing on the Edge (premiering Oct. 19, 10 p.m., Starz), is a compelling look at race, class and jazz music in England during the 1930s.

It’s a lusciously shot and brilliantly written and acted account of how the British aristocracy and progressives in high society fell in love with what can best be described as the tantalizing edginess of jazz music and the sense of exploration and wonder it brought to those who heard it even though society at the time was not ready to accept what it all implied.

STORY: 4 TV Execs in Showdown: Fox's Reilly Calls Pilot Season 'Welfare State'; Sarandos' New Threat 

Poliakoff has written that his research for The Lost Prince led him to some surprising discoveries that, as a dramatist and a Brit, he couldn’t ignore. In a note to critics, he explained the fascination that eventually led to the creation of Dancing on the Edge:

"Ten years ago, I made my drama, The Lost Prince, about Johnnie, the youngest son of George V and Queen Mary. While researching the show, I became very intrigued by Johnnie’s brother, Prince George, a rebellious and musical child, who grew up to be George, the Duke of Kent: a playboy prince with an absolute passion for jazz music. I discovered that he used to patrol the clubs in London with his eldest brother, David, the Prince of Wales, exploring the music of different bands. The two princes were thrilled by what was an entirely new sound to them and found themselves irresistibly drawn toward the charged atmosphere of the clubs. They mixed with the musicians and singers, some of whom they befriended and invited into their homes.”

In truth, what moved Poliakoff is the idea that in tough times for race and class, British royalty was enamored with Duke Ellington and his band and how close associations (including affairs) were far ahead of actual social change. (Louis Armstrong was also a particular favorite of the royals.)

In Dancing on the Edge, Poliakoff constructs the fictional Louis Lester Band, led by British citizen Lester (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is championed by an aggressively driven and well-connected critic named Stanley Mitchell (Matthew Goode), who is more than a bit of a hustler. Mitchell has been hired on the side to beef up the sagging fortunes of a high-end hotel and he uses Louis Lester to achieve that goal, all the while writing positive reviews in his fledgling magazine.

Having the royals pay attention is a surprise, of course, as is the interest shown by Masterson (John Goodman), a wealthy and eccentric businessman with a love for jazz and some truly distasteful private desires.

Dancing on the Edge has a strong cast, including Janet Montgomery as Sarah, a photographer and fashionista who pals around with the sister-brother socialites Pamela (Joanna Vanderham) and Julian (Tom Hughes), whose love of jazz and the next popular thing connects England’s elite to England’s cutting edge. Jacqueline Bisset plays a reclusive but progressive English aristocrat named Lady Cremone, who lives at the hotel where the Louis Lester Band burst onto the scene and becomes instrumental in moving them forward. Anthony Head also plays an upper-crust jazz lover whose advice to Louis – get a singer – ends up with the band having best friends Jessie (Angel Coulby) and Carla (Wunmi Mosaku) join the group, propelling them to greater fame and larger audiences.

Dancing on the Edge is a thing of beauty to watch, as the scenes of noirish late-night jazz discoveries in 1930s England are so wonderful to behold.

In the five-part series, Poliakoff is trying to tell a number of stories. He’s of course fascinated with how high society and the royals went all hipster jazz – who wouldn’t be? It speaks to the power of the music to transcend society and traverse the culture. But you can’t tell that story without getting into race and class, which Poliakoff is keenly interested in but doesn’t bludgeon the viewer with incessantly. It is, however, the key element to Dancing on the Edge because the skyrocketing fame of the Louis Lester Band – by its association with the upper crust, allowing blacks and white to live like they couldn’t in “real” society – spirals when a series of events conspire to make the band the primary target of a crime.

What happens when a controversial association goes sideways? The truth happens, as Dancing on the Edge tries to suggest. As the Louis Lester Band gets tainted, its famous friends begin to shrink away.

Poliakoff never seems to be in much of a hurry to tell a story – which ultimately dings Dancing on the Edge. It’s very atmospheric as it unfolds the almost inconceivable, meteoric rise of a band in a cross-cultural fashion, only to find the unwanted attention and crime allegations just the thing to send the rich and privileged into hiding and denial as their black “friends” come under questioning.

Yes, Dancing on the Edge can seem like a slow go at times and can also seem obvious and prone to social lectures, but it keeps up the illusion of people – even the most powerful of people – intermingling without judgment until they all are tested. Their reactions are depressing but not unexpected.

Ejiofor is magnificent here and Goode keeps creative pace with him (not easy to do), while any number of performances stand out. The miniseries probably doesn’t say anything surprising or new, and at times it seems to slog a bit in its storytelling, but Poliakoff understands how to bring people and story together strikingly, so his superb contributions to the small screen continue after all these years.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine