Nothing softened the upper crust of London society like the jazz bands of the 1930s, as the British aristocracy let class barriers, and themselves, fall into the groove of glamour, music, money and giddy parties.
Dancing on the Edge – a stellar five-part mini-series of passion and prejudice from the dramatist Stephen Poliakoff – lavishly recreates and then blows open this volatile world at the height of the jazz age, as it traces the rise of a group of black musicians, The Louis Lester Band, poised to take London by storm.
Although Britain was undergoing extraordinary social change at the time, the well-heeled still loathed the very notion of black musicians performing in polite society. Surprisingly, it’s the more progressive socialites of the Royal Household who take the band under their wing – elevating these jazzers to the new darlings of the elite.
But the musical bliss ends jarringly, when band members become entangled in a murder conspiracy. Their posh new friends abandon them and withdraw into their bigotry behind their mansion walls.
The British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor – currently riding high Oscar hopes as the star of 12 Years a Slave – earned a Golden Globe nomination for his starring turn as Louis Lester. The debonair black band leader befriends the ambitious Music Express journalist Stanley Mitchell, (Matthew Goode of Stoker, Brideshead Revisited), who sets in motion a lethal game of fame, allegiances and betrayal.
“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,” says Ejiofor, 36. “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.
“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.”
Many of the key characters are drawn from real-life people from the era, says Poliakoff. Prince George and his elder brother, the Prince of Wales, “loved jazz, and went to all these clubs, and had friendships – and, it was rumoured, sexual relationships – with some of the stars”.
Turning in spectacular performances along with Ejiofor and Goode are Jacqueline Bisset, who just won her first Golden Globe for her role as the influential Lady Lavinia Cremone (memorable for her rambling acceptance speech), and the much-loved Hollywood veteran John Goodman as the moneybags entrepreneur Walter Masterson.
When the series was first broadcast in 2013 in the UK on BBC2, it attracted 2.4 million viewers – a 26 per cent boost in the usual Monday prime-time numbers for the channel.
“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,” says Poliakoff. “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.”
• Dancing on the Edge is broadcast at 5.30pm and 9.30pm on Tuesday on ITV Choice HD