BBC Two’s new drama Dancing on the Edge is written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff. The 1930s plot follows a black jazz band in London at a time of extraordinary change.
The two-parter was produced by Faye Ward and Nicky Kentish Barnes, with executive producers Alison Owen, Paul Trijbits and Stephen Poliakoff and DoP Ashley Rowe.
Poliakoff talked to the BBC about his experience of creating and making Dancing on the Edge.
Where did the idea come from to create Dancing On The Edge?
The idea came to me when I was researching The Lost Prince. I was researching George, the fourth son of the King and I discovered that his brother the future Duke of Windsor Edward VIII had hung around with the Duke Ellington band. That haunted me for many years. I decided to look at the financial crash of the 1930s, which of course is very relevant to us at the moment, but I decided to look at that time through the eyes of a fictional black band but based on or suggested by things that had really happened. That’s how the show originated.
I thought the 1930s was an extraordinarily interesting time. I myself have written a lot about the end of the 1930s, the eve of the Second World War, the rise of fascism and all that. But in the early 1930s just after the great crash it was a melting pot of all sorts of things happening; no one knew, just like now, where things were going to lead. There was this wonderful conjunction of this music leading members of the aristocracy to mingle with black musicians and it became very fashionable. The future king Edward VIII went to see the singer Florence Mills many times, more than 25 times. I thought this was an extraordinary window. If we think in terms of the enormous racism at that time, there was a window where things might have turned out differently. I find that a wonderfully haunting time to set a drama.
I didn’t want to write the Duke Ellington story because then one is bound into recording what happened, and speculation and what is true and what is not. I wanted to write a fiction, but as I said, to have the suggestion of the classes mingling – people who never expected to be in the same room together. This was not just the Royal Family. It went through various members of the elite. I didn’t think that that had ever been written about.
There were homegrown black jazz musicians at the time. For example Leslie Thompson was incredibly charismatic and looked a little bit like Denzel Washington. He suggests Chiwetel’s character. At a time there were members of the press taking a great interest in this music. A writer called Spike Hughes, who wrote for Melody Maker at the time, inspired Matthew’s character. This is where I got the idea of this character championing black music this early. When you think: was Melody Maker around at this time? Yes it was. It was started in the late 20s. The world was shifting already.
How did you cast such an extraordinary array of major Hollywood stars and newcomers?
Casting is everything to directing. It’s a truism. It’s a huge part of the job. I write very particular characters so finding the right actor is a crucial and long search. I’ve been lucky enough to have amazing casting for most of the work that I’ve done. Andy Pryor, who has cast all my work over the last 15 years, and I knew that we had set the bar quite high already. We have done work with people just before they became stars, like Emily Blunt and Tom Hardy, and previously with Matthew McFadyen and before then Clive Owen, Ruth Wilson, Gemma Arterton and Rebecca Hall. We like discovering people. Even though people think I have always worked with Bill Nighy, Tim Spall and Lindsay Duncan or Michael Gambon, I have championed young actors. I tend to write a lot of young roles. We were searching for new faces as well as well-known faces. First of all we started by casting Louis. Chiwetel Ejiofor is such a fantastic leading man and also plays the piano; he is very glamorous in this role. We’re used to seeing him in many different guises in Hollywood and on the London stage. He has been tremendously supportive to the whole project; he has an overview of the whole thing, which is unusual for an actor. I found him a brilliant colleague as well as an actor.
I had seen Matthew in various works including Brideshead in which I thought he was brilliant. I’ve always been watching him and thinking this is a brilliant young actor. He’s a revelation as Stanley. He’s incredible to watch. He has an enormous amount of energy, which is very important to this role.
For the other younger roles we wanted to work with actors whom we haven’t worked with before. The great thing about having a bit of freedom when I work is that I can cast whom I like. I actually have a very good track record at discovering stars. I think the BBC trusts me and I hope it has been mutually beneficial. I wasn’t under pressure to deliver familiar names for the younger roles, so the young women were fairly unknown. Janet Montgomery was relatively unknown, although had done a couple of episodes of Skins. She then had managed to carve a career, which is very unusual for young British actors, in American television.
I’ve seen a lot of girls for the role of Pamela, which was eventually to be cast with Joanna Vanderham. It’s quite a difficult role to play. She has to be both frivolous and serious. She has already been cast in another huge role since the BBC saw her in my rushes. I think she, like Janet, is going to be a real force. She’s only in her early 20s. She has an amazing acting technique to someone so young.
Jenna-Louise Coleman was then cast as the new Doctor Who girl, which again is not a complete coincidence! She plays Rosie and again is a brilliant talent.
I auditioned Tom Hughes for my play last year entitled My City. He was auditioning with a woman I know and she turned to me and said, “That boy is a star!”
The most interesting thing of all, I think, was the search for our two singers. We staged open auditions and had lots of singers who we hoped to connect. We’ve actually ended up with two very experienced actors who bizarrely have never sung in public. Angel Coulby’s agent didn’t even know she could sing. If we would have known that earlier we would have saved ourselves a lot of time seeing roomfuls of young singers!
Wunmi Mosaku, who plays the other singer Carla, grows in stature as a character throughout the show. People will know her for her performance in I Am Slave. Again nobody had ever heard her sing and yet she had this amazing voice. What the audiences will hear in show are their real voices. They’re not manipulated or affected in any way, it’s their authentic singing. She has extraordinary presence on screen.
And of course we had our legends John Goodman and Jacqueline Bisset. John, of course, is an amazing act and I think this is a different role for him – both powerful and very tender. He has such a huge presence and manages to grow and grow the character through the story. Rather than a cameo, John’s character finally reaches quite tragic dimensions. Jacqueline, of course, who was incredible and I have to say was a pin-up of my youth. I’m old enough to remember Jacquline as a boy going to see Bullitt; she was also fantastic in Truffaut’s Day For Night, which is one of my favourite films. She’s so lovely and touching in the show, in a way that I think when people haven’t seen her before.
It was also wonderful to have two homegrown legends, like Caroline Quentin whom I had never met before. She’s an incredibly joyful presence on-screen. And Mel Smith with whom I go right back to my youth. He’s playing are incredibly different role from anything he’s played before. He is truly authentic at the entertainment manager of the hotel Mr. Schlesinger.
Maybe one of the most interesting presences was Anthony Head who I have never met before but obviously knew his work from Buffy. Here we have in playing a very dark character and I don’t think again that anyone had seen him in a role like this before.
I think it’s fascinating to cast people against type as I did with Tom Hollander as George V. I don’t think anyone at the time thought that Tom was right for George V, least of all Tom! But he was brilliant in that role. And I think Anthony is fantastic in this role, a revelation.
There’re a number of senior actors we wanted to be in the shadows like Jane Asher who plays a very forceful aristocratic mother. She only has a few things but is incredibly effective. Once you see the relationship between Jane’s character and Tom’s you understand much more why Tom’s character Julian is the way he is. I don’t want to tar all aristocrats of that time with the same brush, but there was certainly this coldness towards their children. The idea of putting your children first is a very modern idea, certainly it was the reverse then. Jane is someone who was in my early plays and it’s certainly a joy to be working with her again.
How did you approach your role as director?
I have directed all of my own work for the last 25 years or so. It’s always an interesting exercise when you stop being a writer and start being a director. All of my work is made on a brutal schedule. People may see the beautiful images on the screen and assume that I am allowed to do whatever I want. But that’s just not the case. What made it particularly difficult was that we were working with a show that did not have a standing set. Other shows are able to use the same location and the same scenery, but in our case we were moving from location to location every day. You have to remain on schedule and that is a fearsome discipline, which I have had to learn to live with. It’s a little like having constant mild toothache. But because I know what is important in a scene I am able to recognize what can be done in a more expedient way.
For television drama in general most people do five days rehearsal. I rehearsed for three weeks. It then allows everybody to be able to come to the production really understanding what they’re doing and why they’re there. It helps to build up confidence of the actors and it helps me to realise what I have written too. It’s a slight of hand really. You aim to achieve the quality of a feature film but on the budget of a TV series.
Music plays an important part in Dancing On The Edge. How did you create the soundtrack and songs?
One of the challenges of the drama was finding a band to play the music. It’s quite complicated because they had to be on screen, they had to be real musicians. They also had to be able to have enough time to be on the set six or seven hours a day. That was a logistical problem that the show had to overcome if it was to exist.
Early jazz as we know it goes back to the turn-of-the-century but jazz in Britain really made an impact in the early 30s when musicians like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong came here. The music that we know was being played then we only can hear through rather crackly technology of old records from the time. Obviously, if you had been in a room with that music the experience would’ve been completely different, the sound would’ve been so much richer. Adrian Johnston and I really felt that you had to have a visceral experience as though you were actually there.
Adrian has given me great score after great score and has been one of the great collaborators of my career. It’s a phenomenal contribution that he’s made to my work over the years. He wrote all the songs.
Initially I was going to write them with him – we wrote a song for Gideon’s Daughter for Emily Blunt that was nominated for an Emmy award – but I’m not a natural lyricist, I’m about as likely to be nominated for dancing in the ballet as I am for writing lyrics. So it was astonishing that I was suddenly an Emmy nominated lyricist!
With Dancing On The Edge Adrian suddenly burst forth like someone speaking in tongues and produced all these extraordinary songs. The songs are vivid, tuneful and yet not at all historically a complete lie. We are aware that we had to make the songs attractive to modern audiences.
There was a singer called Florence Mills who caused a sensation in the 20s and 30s in London. She had a show that ran for ages, royalty went there and anyone who was interested in show business. She performed so much that she dropped down dead at a young age. Jazz at this point was still a minority taste. It wasn’t until later when artists like Benny Goodman burst onto the scene that jazz became mainstream. There was a party for the Prince of Wales held by Lord Beaverbrook where Duke Ellington’s band played; the Prince of Wales ended up playing the drums with the band, which is an image that I have borrowed for the show and I have made it Prince George’s story point. But that does show how closely I was mirroring what was going on in real life at the time.
Jazz music was a very exciting new route, because it was much more vibrant than other types of music in that era, such as the Foxtrot. Rather than following a tradition of minstrel bands, the jazz band in the show follows a new route, and it’s mentioned by various characters throughout the show that they are not conforming to the expectation that they would be playing music whilst dressed as though they were from the jungle, with girls wearing a bunch of bananas.
Also the band that you are seeing on the screen is the same band that is playing the soundtrack.
The entire show was shot on location. How did you find all of these backdrops?
The big question was how does one create 1930s England on a budget that is not colossal. The way to get round the limitations of having a show that is not on an HBO size budget is to shoot on real locations and not try to build studio sets and spend a lot of time finding real locations, and using them in as an imaginative away as you can. What I wanted to echo was particularly the London hotels; hotels at this time were huge centres of entertainment, to attract diners. They had these enormously elaborate floorshows at hotels like the Savoy and the Cecil, which was on the Strand and was knocked down in the late 30s. It was at one time the biggest hotel in the world. The Imperial Hotel in the show is based on that. It was almost like a huge Titanic that fell on hard times in the 1930s and was located where the Shell building now stands.
We were lucky enough to find this beautiful ballroom in Birmingham, which had been left marooned surrounded by a dead hotel. So when we went to film there the temperature was absolutely freezing. Also in Birmingham we found this incredible foyer and by putting them together we created the huge luxury hotel. Public areas in the 30s were enormous. There was a place called the Holborn Tearooms that was gigantic. We think of the past as quaint and small and yet these buildings were huge.
We also depicted the Masons having their meetings in the basement. This continued until quite recently in fact – the Café Royal being one example. I discovered Masonic temples in the basement underneath when I was researching another project many years ago so I know this to be true.
Creating different worlds was important so we shot the magazine world in the east end, and the club we set in the beautiful old Wiltons Music Hall. But it’s not all London-centric. The show goes out to other areas of England to show the poverty at the time including a mining town where we shot several scenes in the Midlands. We also have a number of scenes with trains, which was all quite elaborate and we had to find a way of doing them within budget.
Although the show is not overtly political you deal with a number of issues that remain furiously relevant today – immigration, racism and class. Was that intentional?
In the 1930s there was a ferocious immigration policy. There were incredibly strong rules after the First World War. You had to be able to prove that you had found work every week. There were also cases of people being followed in the street and questioned to find out if they were telling the truth. So it was very difficult for black musicians coming from abroad. What makes this very interesting to the modern audiences is that in some ways it’s not that different to current immigration policies in some respects.
I think that what ties us most significantly with that period is that in the same way as now, nobody then knew what was going to happen next economically. And of course many people were unaware of the catastrophe that was coming, namely the Second World War.
Technology at that time was bursting. The wireless as they called it was being mass-marketed and the ‘talkies’ had just arrived. At this point there was an explosion with celebrity obsession. In fact, celebrity was almost more popular in the 1930s than it is now. When Gary Cooper came to London at the end of the 30s during the time of the Munich crisis there were streets lined with people from miles. I can’t think of another celebrity that would be able to create such a huge audience and bring London to a standstill today.
Unlike many other historical dramas what I look to do is to bring the audience inside the drama itself. Rather than view the drama historically as they’re looking into a fishbowl, I prefer people to feel that they are living the moment. What I’m hoping with the character of Louis is that the audience becomes him in many ways. I look for them to ask the same questions that he is asking, “Can I trust these people? Do I like this girl?”
Ultimately, racism never goes away. It’s continuously a terrible problem. As we see a downturn in economies across Europe we sadly at the same time see a rise in racist activity. What we can take from the show is proof that not everybody at that period was racist. If that were the case the band would have ultimately been completely shut out.
At this point in history, where we are today, it’s important to recognise that good must win out. So in that sense, the story of Dancing On The Edge is very relevant.
What do you hope audiences will take away with them?
When I set out to do any drama, particularly on the mass medium like television, what I’m trying to do is first of all on the most banal level tell a good story. I like to think of myself as a storyteller. This story in particular has quite a powerful forward momentum. Regardless of the period, it’s interesting in that it’s about people discovering something new, friendships being forged and those characters then being forced to take the moral choice – are they going to back Louis or turn against him? That’s a situation that people can find themselves in in any era.
But what I’m trying to do with the show is give people an exciting engaging and visceral experience. There are no villains in this piece even though it seems that there might be. Every character is made up of darkness and lightness. Without giving anything away, some of the characters that one may like at the beginning turn out to be darker and those who you may feel to be arrogant may turn out to be quite brave. The great thing about developing the story over six hours is that you can go into the complexities of your characters and show how complicated people are in real life. Ultimately, I want the audience to be haunted by the experience and for it to stay with them. It may be from this experience that they are then encouraged to find out more about this period. I’m trying to create an indelible story, which is a difficult thing to do in television with such fantastic competition.
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