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‘Dancing on the Edge’ is a Complex Drama Filled with All That Jazz
June 26, 2016  | By David Hinckley

PBS has hit the right note by bringing back Dancing on the Edge, a BBC series that first aired in the U.S. on Starz in 2013.

Starting Sunday at 9 p.m. ET (please check local listings), it’s a complex, stylish drama with fine music and a lot to say.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (top, at piano) heads a large ensemble cast as Louis Lester, a 1930s jazz bandleader modeled loosely on Duke Ellington.

He has taken his band to England, and while most British music lovers of the time might fairly be characterized as suspicious or indifferent, Lester runs into a small group of believers who can shape the course of both music history and the Louis Lester Band.

That includes Stanley Mitchell (Matthew Goode), a journalist whose beat includes music; Walter Masterson (John Goodman), a rich man who can open any door if he likes you; Lady Cremone (Jacqueline Bisset, right), a rich woman with her own power; Sarah (Janet Montgomery), a photographer who finds a personal connection with Lester; and Jessie (Angel Coulby, below, left), whom Lester hires as a vocalist.

Dancing on the Edge isn’t the story of dusty bus rides to small village halls, which was the lot of virtually all musical ensembles during the Depression, in England and elsewhere.

Not long after we meet the Lester band, they are playing for the Prince of Wales (Sam Troughton), who becomes enamored of Jessie.

If that sounds like the ticket to a happy ending, though, the viewer should not leap to any hasty and overly optimistic conclusions.

When the band is also hired to play the Imperial Hotel, an elite venue, band members are instructed to use the servants’ entrance.

It’s a blunt reminder this is still the 1930s and few places in the European world had embraced the human equality concept.

But the Lester band, like most musicians in real life, had limited options for resisting these indignities.

The racial tension further escalates with several personal tragedies, themselves compounded by an encounter with a group of Germans who were fully on board with the master race theory.

Through it all, the vintage music gives Dancing on the Edge a faint whiff of Boardwalk Empire. But the show really has something else on its mind: the struggle of musicians against cultural prejudice and the struggle of many people against social prejudice.

Most of the characters have traits of decency, which gives Dancing a hopeful tone even when events seem to suggest hope is wishful thinking. We want the folks who deserve it to win, and so does the show.

Whether they do is what Dancing on the Edge is about, and with superb performances by Ejiofor, Goodman, Montgomery, Coulby and others, the story looks at this fascinating world with an unblinking eye.

It’s visually stylish and disturbing in the right ways.

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