Don’t know if you like jazz, or if you like period dramas. If you do like either or both, then you should check out Dancing on the Edge, an original TV-mini-series which had its USA premier on Starz last night. It was previously broadcast on the BBC last February/March.
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Louis Lester, a band leader and song writer/composer. On its surface, and in the briefest of descriptions, per IMDB, the story is about a black jazz band that becomes entangled in the aristocratic world of 1930’s London as they seek fame and fortune.
And that is a simple overview. What is really going on is that this is a murder mystery and it a story that pulls back the curtain to reveal the stark, corrupt, and dark side of British society at that time. I’ll toss in the word bigotry as well.
Without revealing the ins and outs of the plot, I think an introduction to the characters and the actors portraying them should be sufficient to attract your interest.
As I stated at the outset, Chiwetel Ejiofor is the lead. His Louis Lester is a brilliant musician, and a principled man devoted to his friends, as well as the members of his band. In 1933, not only was jazz new to Britain, but the British society remained distinctly class driven.
John Goodman plays Masterson. He is a beyond rich playboy. He’s always in search of a good time, and it has been said that he never goes to bed. Early on, Masterson hires Lester’s band to perform at a picnic in the country. Actually, the picnic is aboard Masterson’s private train, and the train has no set destination. Sort of like the popular ‘cruises to nowhere.
Matthew Goode portrays Stanley. Now Stanley is almost a one-man show with regard to a British publication about entertainment and nightlife called The Music Express. He writes most of the copy, does the art work for a cartoon series, and is a man about the town. He is instrumental in getting the Lester band some performing opportunities.
To begin, he gets them a job at the old (and stodgy) Imperial Hotel. Yes, it is in London, and yet it is so very British. This hotel is almost cartoonish, but you will believe what you see.
Lester asks Stanley, Have they ever had a colored band here?
Stanley replies, No, they haven’t and its even better than that. They’ve never even heard jazz before.
Though Stanley is a writer, he has many friends in high places.
One of which is Donaldson played by Anthony Head (above on the right). Now Donaldson knows all the players in the top tiers of society as well as in the government. When some of the band members are faced with immigration problems, he’s there to help.
The British Immigration authorities, here called the Alien Registration Department wanted written letters of employment from the employers in advance, otherwise work permits could not be issued. And the permits were good for just a week at time. Then a new letter must be issued. At one point, Donaldson promises Lester, As we speak, phone calls are being made.
Another key member is Jacqueline Bissett as Lady Cremore. Yes, she part of the aristocracy, but don’t even think that she might be a crusty dowager type.That’s not even close to being factual. Ms Bissett, besides still smoking, has come a long way since portraying Steve McQueen‘s girlfriend in Bullitt, circa 1968.
And that’s just for starters. The series is simply loaded with great roles for women. One who comes with a strong interest in Lester, is Sarah (Janet Montgomery – below in red) a photographer who always seems to show up at the various parties and clubs. She’s not a British aristocrat, but she might be the daughter of a former Russian ‘royal’ who may have fled Moscow before the purge.
Pamela (Joanna Vanderham – above near the wall, and below with her back to us) is another party girl who pals around and has a thing for Stanley.
Of course Stanley is playing around with his own secretary called Rosie.
Then there are two magnificent roles for two women who become the band’s singers. One is Jessie played by Angel Coulby (above). The other is Carla played by Wunmi Mosaku (below).
Those are your major players.
Now as I previously stated the story is more than just a tale of a struggling band. It is just as concerned with the cultural clash, the tilting and shifting of the societal tectonic plates of standards and norms.
The band is not just a group of angels. Some of the have their own secrets, and foibles, and are not above breaking a rule or two when convenient. But the Brits, beneath their cultured veneer, and their politeness and courtly manners, have a dark streak that glides by like a silent stream just below one’s vantage point.
From the top of British society, embodied by a couple of royal princes, to hotel owners and managers, to the Alien Registration office, to waiters, a concierge, and hotel staff, the band, Lester’s band is just the hired help, and it is the servant’s entrance and only the service entrance for them.
Within this austere setting, we have the lively jazz musicians, who are on one side. Then there’s the British scions, peers, and aristocrats on the other side. The British working class, who seemingly have just a few folks that you might like – Stanley and Sarah, are between these two polar opposites.
It is like Stanley and Sarah are stuck between the calm and the cool. Or said another way – between the staid and the passionate. Certainly it is a combustible recipe.
But what impressed me post is the production values. From the cars to the clothes, the period furniture, to the manners, and styles exhibited by all and sundry. Even Masterson, the American multimillionaire has his own look and style.
No, they didn’t put this six episode miniseries together by visiting a few second-hand stores, or antique shops. This production just oozes money.
I believe this is a series that should not be missed. Think of it this way, Downton Abbey meets Duke Ellington, or Louis Armstrong.
And speaking of Satchmo, have a look at this clip from High Society (1956). Bing Crosby swaps sharps and flats with Satchmo, and if this doesn’t set you up for some jazz, I don’t know what will.
Below is the trailer for Dancing on the Edge.