05/02/2013 01:04 | By Dan Owen, contributor, MSN TV

Chiwetel Ejiofor shines in BBC2 drama, Dancing On The Edge

Reviewed: Chiwetel Ejiofor in BBC2's 1930s-set drama Dancing On The Edge, following a black jazz band in London.

Janet Montgomery and Chiwetel Ejiofor. (© Janet Montgomery and Chiwetel Ejiofor in Dancing On The Edge. ImageBBC)


Dancing On The Edge is a five-part mini-series from acclaimed writer-director Stephen Poliakoff. It concerns the fortunes of a black jazz band in 1930s London, led by the charismatic Louis Lester (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor).


There was much to enjoy, but a notable moment came when the jazz band made their debut to a room of nonplussed diners at the posh Imperial Hotel, playing with an upbeat tempo utterly alien to the elderly audience.


The mid-way point of this feature-length episode concerned a bizarre train journey arranged by American millionaire Mr Marsden (John Goodman of Roseanne fame), which promised to become something more than an unusual venue for on-the-nose debate about discrimination.

Full review

The best period dramas reveal something to the modern-day viewer, often involving cultural differences.

I must admit the idea of a mini-series about the fortunes of a London jazz band isn't something with inherent appeal, but Stephen Poliakoff's script was more entertaining and involving than expected.

What's more, who could fail to be impressed by the cast assembled for this production?

"Dancing On The Edge knew where to focus attention"

In addition to Chiwetel Ejiofor, there's Matthew Goode, the aforementioned John Goodman, screen veterans Jacqueline Bisset and Jane Asher, comedian Mel Smith, Buffy and Merlin star Anthony Head, Merlin's Angel Coulby and Doctor Who's Jenna-Louise Coleman.

I liked how the story was very straightforward at heart, as this allowed for interesting character moments and a narrative with time to breathe.

Viewers are often bombarded with information in period dramas, but Dancing On The Edge knew where to focus attention and how to progress the plot at a pace that, while leisurely, wasn't frustratingly slow.

In essence, this is the story of how ambitious journalist Stanley Mitchell (Matthew Goode) of Music Express made it his mission to bring a remarkable jazz band of black musicians to wider attention.

First, he gets them booked at a glitzy hotel owned by a Mr Schlesinger (played by comedian Mel Smith) where they impress a group of socialites including Anthony Head's Mr Donaldson.

He then exploits their unlikely endorsement by a royal (bringing them to the attention of actress Janet Montgomery's gorgeous photographer, Sarah), before even a rich American entrepreneur took a shine to the unusual ensemble.

The drama came from the divisions that started to appear between the band's nominal manager Wesley (Ariyon Bakare), their spiritual centre Louis Lester (Ejiofor), and the music journalist promising to make them rich.

Not to mention the interference of people looking for any excuse to deport members of the band overseas, for bureaucratic reasons.

A bit of pride and prejudice

Naturally, Dancing On The Edge spent time highlighting the prejudices that were common in 1930s England, but it was remarkably restrained about it - unless more overt racism appears in the later instalment.

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Instead, it successful constructed a peculiar mood that permeated the entire production, partly born of the fact we viewers were constantly expecting something terrible to befall amiable Louis or his hardworking musicians.

For example, the moment Louis helped sneak a sick (or concussed?) woman from Mr Masterson's ransacked hotel room was genuinely tense. Is that because we subconsciously expect black characters in unenlightened times to always be victims in dramas like these?

Another unnerving scene came when Louis was shown a peephole into a secret Freemason meeting being held beneath the hotel. Neither event amounted to anything here, but I suspect seeds have been planted for later pay-off...

Dancing On The Edge was a classy drama with beautifully unfussy direction from Poliakoff. It's smartly acted by the entire cast, but particularly the ever watchable Chiwetel Ejiofor and Matthew Goode.

  • Verdict: Absorbing drama which will, I believe, reward patient viewing.

    Star grade

What other reviewers said

The Telegraph - "There was a rounded mix of promising Brits and American stars on show."

The Independent - "It looks and sounds gorgeous. Possibly just a little too gorgeous in fact."

What people on Twitter said

@TVjunkster - "'Dancing On The Edge' on BBC2 was amazing, the music was tremendous."

@PatrickStrud (columnist Patrick Strudwick‏) - "Dancing on the Edge...of abject boredom."

‏@NeilMidgley (Neil Midgley from The Telegraph) - "Watch Stephen Poliakoff's Dancing on the Edge, starting shortly on BBC2. It's nothing short of brilliant."

The views in this article are those of the author alone and not of MSN or Microsoft

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