Dancing On The Edge
An explosive new drama for BBC Two from writer/director Stephen Poliakoff
Interview with Chiwetel Ejiofor
Stephen has created a multi-layered story with Dancing On The Edge that encompasses immigration, racism, the advance of jazz music and class. Is this a story with which people will be familiar?
I think it is definitely true that there are aspects of this story that people aren’t familiar with and that immigration and multiculturalism took on a very specific meaning in the 50s with 'Windrush'.
Obviously there was migration before then and people were introduced to every aspect of foreign cultures. What’s interesting about this is that within the context of music we’re introduced not only to this all-black band but also to the influences on Duke Ellington. There were groups of people in the aristocracy who were always addicted to the ‘new’ during this period.
This is the time before in which the concept of immigration was a political gesture in and of itself. This band would have worked in the Merchant Navy, they would have established groups all around the United Kingdom, and would deal with prejudice in a localised way.
That is part of the story but it is not the defining part of the story. What defines it is how all of the characters are involved in this massive crisis of identity and where they belong in any given society be they aristocrats or an all-black jazz band. This cross-fertilisation of cultures, and what that brings up in terms of loyalty, is at the heart of the story.
It’s a multi-layered idea. It’s not a story about immigration or migration or racism per se, although this is the backdrop to some of their experiences. It’s about their personal relationships that happen at this window in time where Europe is on the brink of this massive devastation; where Europe as they knew it would cease to exist as it formally was.
So the ideas of how these people relate to each other on a personal level is a representation of how Europe was dealing with these crises on a much wider scale, which inevitably lead it to this enormous conflict.
There were race riots in that era but a lot of them had a different bent. There were race rights to do with blacks and Asians, but the main movement of racism at that time with Mosley and the black shirts had a slightly different agenda. But society had a general antagonism towards these elements and I think that is what is laced into Stephen’s writing.
Some of the people that you see the Louis Lester band being introduced to within the aristocracy, who want to support his course and help to get his music out there, have a very liberal, sophisticated outlook to a point. I think it’s that point that is the crucial juxtaposition between their relationships. Ostensibly, on the surface they have the ability to include the Louis Lester jazz band in their world.
Where does your character Louis fit into all of this?
Louis never sees himself as included because he is not a fool. But he can on some level consider himself equal within the context of their society life. But he never trusts that they really afford him that. The distinction is that he would always consider himself foreign and that it was really just fortunate that he had all his papers to be able to move freely. A lot of the band did not and this is why the immigration authorities are constantly chasing them. He perceives himself as one of them, even though he was born in London.
In some respects London at the time is much freer than, for example, New York for the southern states. Even though the origins of this music are from the US, it was the British aristocracy and royalty that promoted this relationship. It would not have been possible for Duke Ellington to have the same relationship within the US social structure.
It’s as though London became a haven. Paris at that time was somewhere many artists and musicians were able to escape the prejudices of America. The fact that Ellington was able to cross the boundaries at that time in Europe I think is a crucial part of the dynamic.
Tell us about the music and how that plays such a significant part of your character’s development
It’s not the first time I’ve played the role of the musician. As a pianist when I played in the Woody Allen film Melinda And Melinda. I play piano and as a kid I could play a little, but not to the level that occurs in the show. I started to meet the band individually during the rehearsal period. I think from the very beginning everybody liked the music. The music fits brilliantly into the era and into the origins of jazz but it’s also captivating in its own right for a modern audience. I was interested to get advice on how to play the bandleader and the guys are all such skilled musicians, they have so many years of experience under their belts, they were able to give me all the information I needed. And Angel and Wunmi as the two singers are just phenomenal. Them added to the band just gelled.
There were people who are out there like Lesley Hutchinson, people who are part of this era of black jazz musicians who worked and became incredibly successful in London at this time. That was the obvious starting point for my research. Most of all it was about trying to work out the time – understanding the period of the 1930s. Particularly as people nowadays are not particularly aware of the issues that people had to deal with during this time. So the balance was to be able to present it authentically, but also in a way in which people would be able to engage.
Collectively as a group, the more we looked at the 1930s, the more we realized that there was enormous crossover between the issues that people dealt with then and those that we deal with in our contemporary lives.
Did you research the people of this era to get a sense of the way in which they spoke and presented themselves?
When you listen to people talking in the 1930s you’re presented with this really complicated dynamic. People had a way of presenting themselves when they were in narration, which is just a fact of the time. It becomes harder to find people talking as themselves. When people presented on the radio they do so in the most refined way possible. But we know that people didn’t really speak like that to each other.
The way Louis dressed himself is a major part of the way in which he presented himself and how he does find himself being accepted into certain parts of society. For me, he seems a very elegant man, wanting to present himself in the most glamorous light he can. What makes him distinctive is also what makes him slightly isolated. The nature of his isolation affords him the opportunity to be both able to distinguish myself from crowds and move between different layers of society. He is also able to create bonds with different groups easily because he is slightly Chameleon-like. Because he has papers, he can work and moving freely and he uses this to his advantage.
Tell us about your relationship with Stanley, Matthew Goode’s character. Are you similar in some respects?
Both Louis and Stanley are both hungry for something. In a structure where people are born into privilege and where class is so prevalent, that hunger to break barriers is something that propels them both, I think. What Louis has that Stanley doesn’t is the ability to make any room stand up and dance. Stanley doesn’t have that. It’s almost like a superpower.
But Stanley has his finger in a lot of pies and he’s going to push something until it works. I think that dynamic is exactly how people started to break down those class barriers. But they had to work incredibly hard to do it. Both men have to fight against certain prejudices and boundaries that are put in their way. Of course, inevitably with these stories, they realize that what they thought they wanted is not really what they were looking for. They learn that the reality of breaking through prejudice is much harder than they had initially imagined.
It’s fascinating to see an interracial relationship at the heart of the show between Louis and Janet Montgomery’s character, Sarah. What do you think this says about the time and place in which the show is set? Does it demonstrate Louis’ bravery?
In a sense, I think the bravery is hers. The concept of her being so forward thinking and her ability to push through general ideas of society and look at this person beyond just his skin colour and view him as an individual, is fascinating. In the jazz scene moving through Europe, it wasn’t uncommon to see interracial relationships. In relation to the laws of miscegenation in America at that time, there is marked distinction between these two continents.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the show?
I think people will relate to the show on a number of different levels. I think it’s amazing to have this music from this time. It’s incredible to have this cross-cultural group mixing with each other in this way. I think Stephen beautifully captures the language and the forms of expression that they have, the way they live their lives and what it means to them.
I think the wider issues of England at this time was that the country was right on the cusp of really significant change, with people having to make really detailed and profound choices; not only of who they wanted to be but what kind of place they wanted to live in. There are a number of amazing ideas here that Stephen has brought together beautifully.
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