Right in the midst of the early 2013 recapping, the BBC starting seriously ramping up its promotion of Stephen Poliakoff’s five-part miniseries, Dancing on the Edge. And even though I was juggling three shows already, not to mention an actual job and a life, I put it on my schedule and made a mental note to tune in when it aired in early February. After all, the promos promised scandal! intrigue! sex! jazz! And I like all those things. Toss in a rather glammed-up 1930s setting and an excellent cast and I was all in.
And then I watched it. God knows why. I’m still wondering why I stuck with it. I guess I was hoping it would all actually come together and pay off by the end. It didn’t. After the first episode, I considered doing recaps, but to be honest, I just couldn’t face it. I couldn’t bear the thought of watching the show slowly enough to recap it because watching it in real time was like watching slow motion. It was boring as hell, and for a show that seemed largely built around a murder mystery and a man on the run, it was sorely lacking in urgency, tension, or a real sense that anything was happening.
What story there was was this: an absurdly elegant man named Louis Lester (played by the absurdly elegant Chiwetel Ejiofor) has a jazz band named–you guessed it!–the Louis Lester band. While playing at a grubby London club one night, they’re briefly heard by music journalist Stanley Mitchell (Matthew Goode), who just so happens to have ridiculously good contacts in the upper classes (despite the fact that he’s clearly of the lower-middle classes himself. No, I don’t believe they ever explain how he met his rich friends). His friends include affectionate siblings Julian and Pamela (she played by Johanna Vanderham, best known to us as Denise in The Paradise, and putting in a very different performance here), Pamela’s buddy/personal stylist Sarah, who starts a thing with Louis, and rich guy Arthur Donaldson, who seems determined to see the band succeed. Once they acquire a pair of singers–Jessie, whose talent is about as substantial as her body, which means, not very; and Carla–they’re booked into a regular gig at a high-class hotel, where they get to shock the pearl-wearing dowagers with their scandalous jazz music. Along the way, they charm Lady Cremone, a reclusive jazz-lover (jazz having been really big with older women living in giant houses in the middle of nowhere) and get entangled with Walter Masterson (John Goodman), an American who’s sort of like the Richard Branson of his day, except rather menacing and without any of Branson’s charm. Things are going fine until Jessie gets stabbed, and because he happened to find her and because nearly everyone in this show is a complete idiot willing to overlook the fact that he has an airtight alibi, Louis gets accused of the crime and has to go on the run. Also, there are Nazis and Freemasons thrown in there, because why not?
I think the primary problem with this mini was that it didn’t seem to have any idea what it wanted to be, so it was trying to be a lot of things and failing at all. Was it going to be a mystery? An exploration of race in 1930s England? A glimpse at the emergence of jazz as an art form? A tense thriller? I’m not saying that a programme has to just pick one thing and only be that–indeed, the best shows explore many themes–but Dancing’s lack of focus meant it seemed to be spreading itself too thin, so no theme was ever very well served. We got glimpses of each of these ideas–for instance, the band is occasionally exposed to blatant racism, as when a spoiled brat at a birthday party demands to know why they don’t look like the pantomime negros he’s used to. There are also occasional nods to the fact that there was basically a global depression going on–but all of these moments simply go away and are never alluded to again, rendering them completely flimsy and too ephemeral to be worth any real attention. And some odd things, like a bizarre-looking woman who keeps showing up for the middle three episodes, simply disappear with no explanation or notion of why they were there in the first place. That’s not a red herring, that’s just sloppy editing and a slap in the face to the audience.
Slapping the audience’s face seems to be something of a specialty of Poliakoff’s. I admit, I’m not familiar with his other work, but from what I’ve heard, he’s one of those artistes who loathes his own audience and will not be tied down by such nonsensical expectations as plot and pacing. And that kind of thinking is fine if you’re sitting in your garret reeling off reams of poetry or splashing out paintings you don’t actually expect anyone to buy, but when you’re doing your work on the taxpayer’s dime, it’s pretty offensive. I don’t actually know why this man actually continues to get work as a writer and director, because if this is anything to go by, he’s terrible at both. The dialogue was painfully stilted, and the directing was utterly bizarre. I felt, at times, like I was watching a stage play, and not in a good way. The overly exaggerated mannerisms that are sometimes required so those in the cheap seats can see what’s happening do not translate well to television. Line delivery was often stiff and stilted, and nobody seemed comfortable with what they were doing. The pacing also dragged needlessly.
I felt a bit sorry for the cast, most of whom seemed to be doing their best with what they had. The true standouts were Ejiofor, who’s just so terribly watchable he barely has to try, and Vanderham, who was definitely the series MVP and took the typical poor little rich girl role and made her kind of awesome. John Goodman, on the other hand, was clearly phoning it in, not that I blame him, and Goode simply couldn’t pull off the lower-class accent he seemed to be going for.
On the plus side, there’s plenty of gorgeous period dress to feast your eyes on, and the music, while nothing groundbreaking or particularly great, is sufficiently pleasing and toe-tapping. It’s just a shame it’s all dragged down by the weight of everything else, which, bizarrely, feels incredibly heavy while actually being utterly insubstantial.