While researching his acclaimed 2003 TV drama The Lost Prince, the tragic story of George V's youngest son, Stephen Poliakoff stumbled across an interesting fact; two of the king’s other sons were jazz fans. The future Edward VIII was a frequent visitor to smoky, London jazz clubs in the late 1920s and early 30s and once played the drums with Duke Ellington at a private party at Lord Beaverbrook’s home.
That image of the British establishment socialising with black musicians stuck in Poliakoff’s mind. Many years later, when the BBC asked him to write his first five-part drama series, he used it as his starting point. The result is Dancing on the Edge, which follows the fortunes of the fictional Louis Lester Jazz Band as they become the toast of British high society in the early 1930s.
“That period has great resonance now,” says Poliakoff, one of British TV’s best-known dramatists. “There’s scarcely a news programme that doesn’t refer back to the 1930s, the financial crash and the rise of right-wing nationalist parties across Europe. It’s interesting to think that there was this time just a few years before Hitler and the Second World War when the elite were mingling with black musicians, inviting them into their homes, in some cases becoming their lovers.”
Edwina Mountbatten, wife of Lord Louis, is famously supposed to have had an affair with a West Indian jazz musician called Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson. He was devastatingly good looking, a favourite of the royals, and one of the highest paid performers in Britain. Hutch is one of the inspirations for Dancing on the Edge’s fictional Louis Lester (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), along with other 1930s stars such as Jamaican trumpeter Leslie Thompson and bandleader Ken “Snakehips” Johnson, who was killed in 1941 when the Café de Paris was hit by a bomb during the London Blitz.
The famous American actor and singer Paul Robeson also gets a mention in Dancing on the Edge. One of the characters talks about the scandal Robeson caused by kissing his co-star Peggy Ashcroft on stage during a production of Othello at the Savoy Theatre in 1930. Poliakoff wanted to mention it because Ashcroft had starred in his first big TV success, Caught on a Train, about a group of strangers thrown together on a railway journey across Europe.
“Peggy had an affair with Paul Robeson,” says Poliakoff with a little chuckle, “and because she was in my first BBC play I thought mentioning her was rather wonderful.”
It’s clear from the way Poliakoff talks about Dancing on the Edge that the Ashcroft story is not the only aspect of the series that has a personal resonance. His Jewish parents were young adults in London during the 1930s and he’s acutely aware that had history taken a different turn, he wouldn’t be alive today. His last project, the film Glorious 39, looked at appeasement and those elements in the British establishment who wanted to do a deal with Hitler.
“We were never tested during the war in the way other nations were tested, but we came within a hair’s breadth. As a Jew I’m interested in how people like myself would have been treated. There was a great deal of anti-Semitism and racism in Britain during that period, especially among the ruling elite, but it’s also important to remember that not everyone was prejudiced.”
Poliakoff sees the era portrayed in Dancing on the Edge as a window when a more tolerant world seemed possible, when black people were able to mingle freely with more liberal members of the establishment. As the story develops and Louis Lester’s band becomes more famous, a catastrophic event forces all the characters to make a moral choice. “Some people behave well, others don’t and it’s not always in ways you might assume,” he says.
I raise the question of Edward VIII and his alleged pro-Nazi sympathies. Poliakoff believes that had Britain done a deal with Germany and become a Vichy state, Edward would have remained king and the black musicians he liked to hang out with would have been carted off to the camps. “I think for him the attraction was fairly superficial.”
One of my favourite characters in Dancing on the Edge is an eccentric English aristocrat and jazz patron called Lady Lavinia Cremone, who’s played by Jacqueline Bisset. It’s her character who persuades a conservative BBC to broadcast the Louis Lester band. The actress, who’s now 68, still looks stunning: Poliakoff laughs loudly as he remembers her proclaiming to him, “I haven’t had any work done, you know!”
The character of Lady Cremone is loosely inspired by Hannah Rothschild’s book and documentary The Jazz Baroness, about her great-aunt Nica, who fell in love with pianist Thelonious Monk in the 1950s. “Lady Cremone doesn’t exist, but I love the image of the Jazz Baroness and wanted to apply it to an earlier time,” he says.
For those who enjoy a good costume drama, Dancing on the Edge provides a sumptuous feast of Art Deco interiors and bold 1930s fashions. Poliakoff points out that it was an era obsessed with modernism. “As with now, technology was bursting into our lives, talkies and the wireless spread like the mobile phone. For the first time recorded voices and music were in our living rooms, it was revolutionary.”
There’s a stunning original score, written by the Emmy and Bafta award-winning composer Adrian Johnston and performed by an impressive jazz ensemble put together specially for the series. I was amazed to discover that Merlin star Angel Coulby – who plays the lead singer Jessie – has never performed in public before. Poliakoff says even her agent didn’t know she could sing.
He’s clearly proud of the score, and rightly so. “The music is not that dissonant, free-form jazz; they’re proper tunes.” And after our conversation about appeasement and the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe he says, imploringly, “Make sure you write about the score. I don’t want people to think this series is gloomy, there’s plenty of romance and music, too.”
Kirsty Lang presents Front Row on Radio 4
Dancing on the Edge is on Monday and Tuesday at 9:00pm on BBC2
Watch the trailer below: