Oh dear, the BBC must have blown their casting budget for the entire year on this one. It’s positively dripping with movie stars, household names and hot, rising talent – which is just as well, because Dancing on the Edge really has very little edge to speak of.
The period atmosphere, of course, is immaculate. Stephen Poliakoff’s five part 1930s drama about the birth of jazz in the UK is set against a background of thinly disguised racism, poverty and extreme right wing politics. There’s also a lot of distressed wood and peeling paint, and the producers must have covered up every double yellow line in the West End.
Stan Mitchell (Matthew Goode), is the chain-smoking head writer of a struggling music magazine. Stan discovers a band of black musicians and launches them into London society, helped by bored aristocrat and chain-smoking music fan Lady Cremone (Jacqueline Bisset).
Bisset has been an international film star since the late 1960s, so one does wonder what she is doing playing opposite the likes of Mel Smith. But as beautiful as Bisset is, Smith frequently owns the screen as saggy-faced hotel manager Schlesinger. Mel has always given great saggy-face. His jowls were heading south even when he was a rising star in the nineteen seventies, so here’s a role he was born to play.
With callous immigration officials, sinister Freemasons and half the German Nazi Party hot on their heels, the band manage to land a residency at a posh hotel in Piccadilly, and fast become the favorite plaything of the Prince of Wales and his champagne-swilling, chain-smoking buddies.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is hard to say but effortlessly smooth and polished as chain-smoking band leader Louis Lester – a character perhaps partly inspired by real-life, chain-smoking, black band leader Ken “Snakehips” Johnson, who died in the London Blitz in the early forties.
John Goodman (the fat, miserable hubby from Rosanne) plays fat, miserable, chain-smoking millionaire Masterson – a man with so many skeletons in his cupboard there isn’t room for his evening suit.
Joanna Vanderham is pointless, vacant, chain-smoking rich girl Pamela. Vanderham does pointless and vacant beautifully, and luckily for her, in this series (unlike in The Paradise) she is not challenged with any tricky accents.
Jenna-Louise Coleman is in it, of course. She’s in everything. Coleman plays Mitchell’s pretty, chain-smoking assistant, and so far she’s managed to uncharacteristically keep her clothes on. Good for her.
Dancing on the Edge is beautiful to look at and the original jazz music by Adrian Johnston is slick and authentically recorded. I just wish the series had been a little more faithful to the actual history of black jazz musicians in the 30s, and that Poliakoff had resisted the temptation to turn it into a tacky Agatha Christie murder mystery. Did I mention that everyone smokes all the time?