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Reviewed: Stephen Poliakoff's Dancing on the Edge

All that jazz. . . again.

Dancing on the Edge

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.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture