“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie extoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.” – Ralph Ellison
Last night, Saturday, 19th October at 10pm ET/PT, Starz Network aired the US premier of BBC produced drama ‘Dancing On The Edge’ starring leading man of the hour Chiwetel Ejiofor. Cunning timing on the part of the network; capitalizing wisely off the weekend US box office frenzy expected to crown Ejiofor’s latest cinematic venture, the much anticipated (& tirelessly debated, if you’ve been paying any attention to the S&A boards this past year) ’12 Years A Slave.’ But, a cautionary word to the excited. ‘Dancing On The Edge’ may well leave you teetering on an edge – the edge of reason.
When the 5-part Stephen Poliakoff directed jazz drama aired in the UK back in February, the BBC virtually rolled out the red carpet with its seductively colour-filled promos and purportedly swingin’ soundtrack. For the BBC this was rare anticipatory fanfare. For British period drama, this was unprecedented terrain. They pitched this thing like it was the genesis of jazz and technicolour sexy in an otherwise monochrome universe of period drama and Downton Abbey. And then it actually began.
Fast forward to episode 4. The penultimate serving of this slow-brooding convolution had me crying foul on Facebook: “For God’s Sake? (what I really want to say right now isn’t fit for publication and I can’t work out whether it’s a genius portrait of stupidity and evil or just an evil portrait of stupidity masquerading as genius.”
Conventional outlines of the plot in ‘Dancing On The Edge’ have been offered here several times over. In case you missed those however, the BBC website’s version of events pitch it like this:
‘The drama is set in the early 1930s and follows black jazz musicians, the Louis Lester Band, as they find fame amongst the parties and performances of London’s upper class society. Although many recoil at the performance of black musicians in polite society, the city’s more progressive socialites, including members of the Royal Household, take the band under their wing. But when the band becomes entangled in their shadowy world, it results in a suspected murder. The walls begin to close in on Louis and the band.’
Where the walls really began to close in on me as I waded through ‘Dancing On The Edge’ was as it became evermore clear that Black jazz musicians (the 11-piece band touted in the technicolour synopses and swingin’ soundtrack to this drama) were ultimately primed to exist as little more than nameless background players in Poliakoff’s semi-fictional narrative – the sole exception being the character played by Chiwetel Ejiofor- though arguably, only by a sliver of relative uninvisibility. Where indeed it might seem that Ejiofor’s enigmatic turn as band leader Louis Lester (the dashingly mysterious jazz renaissance man who turned the British aristocracy on and out in ways best reconciled by whatever comes to mind when the camera pans in on gratuitous skin shots of Lester’s amorous bedroom escapades with his wealthy benefactors) should at least have earned him the definitive spot as leading man in this drama, his positioning as a compositional foil for the ambitions of a voyeuristic English journalist named Stanley goes a hell of a way towards framing the ultimate intentions of ‘Dancing On the Edge.’
“There was obviously something exotic about [black musicians] to people who had everything and were of a slightly bohemian bent,” comments ‘Dancing on the Edge’s’ musical director Paul Englishby. – Oh yes. And it’s captured unashamedly well in the shadowy meanderings of this drama.
There is redemption here however. For those with constitution’s enduring enough to persevere through episodes 1 to 5, there may be joy at the very bottom of rabbit hole number 5. The finale, episode 5; which for some unanswerably British reason aired several weeks after what had appeared to be closure on the drama- well, that cunning conclusion is the unexpected stroke of genius worth holding out for. At last, the quintessential illuminating moment of psychological narrative depth is spoken by one among those Black jazz musicians. And Chiwetel Ejiofor is the one who delivers. In fact, the entirety of this wry protracted drama owes a singular debt to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s majestic capacity to summon believability despite the betrayal of insufficient character exposition. And the other debt owed is to Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man,’ the influence of which looms incontestably large in Dancing On The Edge’s closing chapter.
An addendum on this drama: In the run-up to its UK broadcast, it inspired a rare BBC documentary hat-tip to the actual Black impresarios who rocked Britain’s jazz age; those characters upon which Stephen Poliakoff’s composite sketch of Louis Lester might well have been based. ‘Swinging Into The Blitz: A Culture Show Special’ [embedded below] explores the stories of charismatic players like Leslie Hutchinson (the Grenada-born cabaret singer and pianist who arrived from Paris in 1927 to become one of Britain’s biggest stars), Ken “Snakehips” Johnson (a Guyanese-born bandleader and acclaimed dancer on the circuit) and Jamaican born jazz trumpeter Leslie Thompson, bandleader of the West Indian Orchestra and killed in the Blitz bombings whilst playing a residence at London’s Café de Paris in March 1941.
If the fictions of ‘Dancing On The Edge’ lean towards anticlimax, you may find respite in the tangible details of ‘Swinging Into The Blitz.’
‘Swinging Into The Blitz: A Culture Show Special’: