Reviewed: Stephen Poliakoff's Dancing on the Edge

All that jazz. . . again.

Janet Montgomery and Chiwetel Ejiofor in "Dancing on the Edge". Photograph: BBC

Dancing on the Edge
BBC 2

I’d love to be able to tell you that the new Stephen Poliakoff series – yes, the BBC has given him a whole series – is set in 21st-century Britain and combines a drum-tight plot with powerfully convincing dialogue. But I’d be lying: Dancing on the Edge (Mondays, 9pm) is set in the 1930s; the plot (we’ve had 150 minutes so far) is meandering and oblique; and the dialogue is so desperately mannered – think Eighties Tatler meets Google Translate – you find yourself wondering if anyone other than Poliakoff read it before he started shooting.

As usual, what he has given us is a collection of dream-like scenes rather than a carefully structured narrative and while these are often beautiful to look at, they also feel rather tired. Poliakoff’s obsessions are by now pretty familiar. If he were to write a drama that didn’t feature a fantastically rich man who loves to play puppet master and yet whose motives for doing so remain spookily opaque . . . well, I, for one, would faint with excitement.

Poliakoff, whose interest in the posh and their houses could give Julian Fellowes a run for his money, has said he got the idea for the series when he was making his 2003 film, The Lost Prince, about Prince John, the youngest son of George V. Somewhere along the way, he discovered that John’s brothers George (who was bisexual) and David (later Edward VIII) liked jazz. Dancing on the Edge, then, is about what happens when toffs and black musicians collide. The patronage of the future king (Sam Troughton) is going to do Louis Lester (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his band an awful lot of good in the short run; what HRH likes today, the whole world likes tomorrow. But in the long run? Hmm. Something tells me there is trouble ahead.

Clichés abound. In the first episode, shortly before the action snapped back two years, we got a close up of a spinning gramophone record. (And before you say anything, Poliakoff doesn’t do irony.) Even cheesier, when Lester auditioned for a singer, we had to watch a series of no-hopers make fools of themselves before – ta-dah! – the last in line, who just happened to be a gorgeous young woman, stood up and knocked everyone dead. But I will say this: the cast is fantastic. Ejiofor looks spiffing in white tie and a cape, and his performance – ropy dialogue allowing – is beautifully understated. I adore Matthew Goode as Stanley the somewhat wide deputy editor of Music Express and author of the comic strip Farquhar and Tonk. Ditto Jacqueline Bisset as the “reclusive” Lady Cremone (a character who seems to be loosely based on Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the Rothschild who became patron to Thelonious Monk). Lady Cremone, by the way, eats globe artichokes for breakfast – a characteristic bit of Poliakoff whimsy.

In this series, there are two rich puppet masters (this is the advantage of having a whole series to himself: our friendly auteur can double the fun) played by Anthony Head and John Goodman. In the first episode, Goodman’s character, Masterson, took everyone – toffs, band, journalist – on a picnic in a private train. He wouldn’t tell them where they were going or why. More whimsy, I’m afraid. He’s violent to women and he likes to have gold on him at all times, in case of financial emergency. Head’s character, Donaldson, says preposterous things such as, “I’m a man of leisure who’s addicted to the new.” We’re led to believe he’s very well-connected, unseen power networks being another of Poliakoff’s favourite tropes.

Look, if a drama can’t give me plot, then at least I would like it to give me character. Poliakoff, though, creates types rather than characters. That he adores grand, empty rooms only adds to this feeling; his actors rattle around, dried peas in the shoebox of his sets. The result, plucky cast aside, is weirdly enervating, even when the band is belting out a fast number, even when the two princes are quick-stepping wildly across the dance floor. The director has got muted trumpets aplenty. But as for rhythm, he ain’t got none at all.