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'Dancing on the Edge' Is Wonderful to See - And Hear
October 18, 2013  | By David Bianculli

Only a handful of Stephen Poliakoff’s British TV dramas have been shown in the U.S., but I’ve seen four wonderful ones. This weekend, Starz imports a fifth…

The earlier ones, to evoke pleasant memories from you Angolphiles who may have gorged on them just as gratefully, are the PBS Masterpiece Theatre imports of Poliakoff’s The Lost Prince (2004) and Shooting the Past (1999), and the BBC America imports of his Friends & Crocodiles (2006) and Almost Strangers (2002), the last of which premiered in the U.K. under the title Perfect Strangers.

Poliakoff wrote and directed them all. And he does the same with Dancing on the Edge, a miniseries premiering this Saturday night (at 10 ET) on Starz.

Originally televised on BBC-2, Dancing on the Edge, set in London in the early 1930s, looks at a couple of very busy years in the life of a fictitious, all-black jazz band. The story, bursting with music, covers everything from a royal obsession with jazz to twisted tales of romance, intrigue, even murder.

The central stars of Dancing on the Edge are Chiwetel Ejiofor, as British-born pianist and bandleader Louis Lester, and Matthew Goode, as Stanley, a music journalist who’s also a sly social activist. Once he hears the all-black Louis Lester Jazz Band – in fact, even before he hears them – he begins shouting their praises, in order to shake up the status quo of hotel ballrooms, BBC radio playlists, and between-the-wars society itself.

Instead of using authentic period music, Dancing on the Edge supplies its own, written to sound authentic by Adrian Johnston. It sounds great – and so do the band’s two female vocalists, whose singing voices are supplied by the actresses themselves, Angel Coulby as Jessie and Wunmi Mosaku as Carla.

But it’s the story, as well as the music, that propels this miniseries forward. The Louis Lester Jazz Band, a collection of British citizens and opportunistic visitors – Americans and Caribbean musicians on temporary work permits – have to deal with bureaucracy, prejudice, and even the unexpected, tricky-to-navigate waters of being embraced by younger members of the British royal family, who are as intoxicated by spending time with another race as they are by their “incendiary” brand of music.

Oh, and somewhere in there, there’s lots of romance, more than a little nudity, and even a murder or two, along with a race for the border that matches anything seen in Argo.

The performances in Dancing on the Edge are captivating, and I don’t just mean the musical ones. Among the other stars of this miniseries are some familiar faces, popping up in unexpected but welcome contexts: Jacqueline Bisset as a hermitic aristocrat. John Goodman as a shrewd, powerful American millionaire. And Jenna Louise-Coleman (right), who already bewitched me as the latest companion on Doctor Who, doing it all over again in a small role as one of Stanley’s colleagues on his feisty music magazine. She has major stardom in her future, if there’s any justice whatsoever.

Dancing on the Edge, though, suggests that justice is not always to be counted upon. But by now, Poliakoff can be counted upon, to entertain, and to do so while exploring provocative and resonant themes. Watch Dancing on the Edge, because anyone who enjoys Downton Abbey will love this miniseries, too.

Besides, it’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it. On British Bandstand, if there were such a show, it’d get a very high score.

To hear or read my NPR Fresh Air with Terry Gross review of Dancing On the Edge, visit the Fresh Air website.
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