I enjoyed the “unintentional comedy” that was Stephen Poliakoff’s Friends and Crocodiles and there was a lot to like about Shooting the Past and A Perfect Stranger.

I’ve noticed that Poliakoff likes to explore class divisions by putting working-class characters into situations that allow them to inhabit the world of the upper classes. He likes to pepper his plots with stately homes, lavish garden parties, picnics, walls plastered with photographic stills …

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“Black and white goes so terribly well together, don’t you think?”

~

… ghostly images in photographic dark rooms …

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… and, of course, typewriter props, some of which ring a bell …

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These are the essential ingredients that Poliakoff re-uses to good effect in his 2013 TV mini-series Dancing on the Edge.

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Stanley Mitchell (Matthew Goode) is deputy editor and chief writer at the emerging music monthly Music Express.

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A Jack-of-all-trades, Stanley also writes captions for the magazine’s cartoon strip: Farquar & Tonk …

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Other members of the staff are Mr Wax (Allan Corduner) the editor, Rosie (Jenna Coleman) the secretary Stanley is sleeping with, and Sarah Peters (Janet Montgomery) a photographer.

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Stanley Mitchell and Rosie

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“Stanley, is this Imperial contemporaneous, given it’s 1933?”

“Huh?”

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After talent-spotting and writing a review of The Louis Lester Band, an American Jazz band playing the basement clubs of London, Stanley gets them a regular gig, with accommodation, at the upmarket Imperial Hotel. This allows them to provide the proof of regular employment that will validate their work visas. Louis Lester (Chiwetel Ejiofor) the band’s very debonair leader has no such worries however, being of British-Caribbean extraction.

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The jazz-loving, rich clientele of the Imperial Hotel includes a mysterious American millionaire Mr Masterson (John Goodman), Masterson’s young assistant, Julian Luscombe (Tom Hughes) somehow hand-picked from the upper echelons of British society to be his gopher, Julian’s diaphanous sister Pamela (Joanna Vanderham), and Mr Donaldson (Anthony Head), a patron of the arts with political and high-society connections.

Donaldson is the one who suggests that the band hire a singer. Instead they end up hiring two. Jessie (Angel Coulby) is a standout at her audition, but refuses to join the band unless they also hire her best friend Carla (Wunmi Mosaku).

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Jessie, Masterson, and Carla

Thanks to Donaldson’s connections the band are asked to play at a funeral and a function at the stately home of the reclusive Lady Davinia Cremone (the lovely Jacqueline Bisset) who also maintains a suite at the Imperial hotel, but spends little time there.

The deceased, Charlie, a Jazz buff and presumably Lady Cremone’s late husband, is sent off in a way he would have appreciated:

“[…] he had all the latest records sent over from America. There’s one in his coffin now.”

Subsequently, Lady Cremone invites Stanley and Lester for tea in her memorial garden, which is dedicated to her two sons killed in the Great War. Through a shared interest in Jazz with her late husband, it’s revealed she has a collection of back copies of the Music Express and agrees to help promote the band.

Stanley makes the most of this by persuading her to pose for a photograph which is featured on the front cover of the next issue …

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Stanley’s taken freelance photographer, Sarah, along in anticipation of just such a thing. It’s also very convenient for the plot, since it allows Sarah and Louis to be paired-up romantically.

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Lady Cremone suggests that the band resume their gig at the basement jazz club, a strategy which baffles the band at first, because they’ve moved on to bigger and better things, i.e.  a regular gig at the Imperial. However, Lady Cremone has a trick up her sleeve, which is revealed when a special visitor to the club turns out to be none other than the Prince of Wales.

With such Royal patronage (the Prince enjoys slumming it at such basement nightclubs and is suitably impressed, especially with Jessie) the sky’s the limit and the band find themselves with a recording contract (His Majesty’s Voice) plus guaranteed BBC air-time on that new-fangled contraption “the wireless”.

Once again we’re treated to the high-jinks of the privileged classes, with the Prince of Wales and his flunkies dancing in the rain, and later, courtesy of Mr Masterson, embarking on a magical mystery tour on a private train, which is reminiscent of the private bus that was hired during that awfully overblown “dancing on the tables” picnic scene in Friends & Crocodiles.

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Another staple of Poliakoff dramas seems to be the close, almost incestuous (it’s hinted) bond between brother and sister, with one stronger sibling protecting the weaker, more mentally-unstable other. We saw this in A Perfect Stranger.

This time it’s Julian and Pamela Luscombe who team-up to survive their dysfunctional and snobbishly aloof parents.

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What saves this drama from the deep hole that Friends & Crocodiles fell into, are the various intrigues and infatuations that keep us interested. For a start, there’s Mr Masterson’s infatuation with Julian, Julian’s infatuation with Jessie (at one point her buys her a brand new car, so just why he needs to run errands for Masterson is a bit of a mystery), Sarah’s infatuation with Louis Lester, and Pamela’s infatuation with Stanley (which is eventually reciprocated, much to the disappointment of poor Rosie).

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SPOILER ALERT …

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Pamela Luscombe (Joanna Vanderham)

~

As far as intrigues go it’s the devilishly-handsome Julian who’s at the centre of things. After a hooker is beaten up in Masterson’s apartment, Julian asks Louis to help him tidy-up and keep things hush-hush (the implication being that Masterson has violent sexual proclivities).

It’s a task which Louis (improbably) accepts only to rue the decision later when Jessie, the band’s lead singer and at the height of her new-found success, is left for dead in a laundry cupboard, the victim of a vicious knife attack. Julian Luscombe is implicated in the crime.

Returning to the Imperial hotel on the night Jessie is attacked, Louis sees Julian, who has supposedly left for a Paris business trip with Mr Masterson. Louis later passes this information on to the police and initially Julian is the prime suspect, but suspicion falls on Louis instead when Julian’s stamped passport corroborates his alibi and his claim that he was en route to Paris at the time of the attack.

With Stanley’s aid, Louis hides out at the offices of the Music Express, and it’s this situation and setting that is used at the start of the first three episodes.

As Jessie languishes in hospital in a coma, Stanley persuades the band to carry on and Carla takes Jessica’s place as lead vocalist. As a sign of the times (and as a sign of things to come) several racist patrons walk out during a performance at the hotel.

Stanley has his revenge when (highly improbably) he’s asked by the German Embassy to recommend a band for an upcoming celebration of the appointment of Herr Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany. Stanley provides them with a band and a white pianist — only to substitute him at half-time with a black pianist, Louis Lester, thus prompting a mass walkout of indignant fascists.

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Stanley taking the stairway to typewriter heaven

~

True to form, Poliakoff has something “rather special” planned as his drama heads towards its climax. Another lavish party is thrown by Lady Cremona, in the cow shed on her country estate no-less, and what’s more the entire village are invited to a knees-up afterwards.

It’s at this point that Julian returns from his mysterious trip to Paris, purportedly having sold English cheeses to the French (I know, hard to believe that the French should want or need English cheese).

More dancing in the street ensues (hence Poliakoff’s title), Jessie dies of her injuries, and a special tribute edition of the Music Express is rushed out as we see more scenes of typing on the rooftop (hence my title).

As the net tightens around Louis Lester, Masterson buys out the Music Express, Stanley gets a massive pay rise and they all move into swanky new offices. However, Stanley is troubled by Masterson’s shady dealings, the true nature of his relationship with Julian, and the fact that Louis appears to have been framed for murder.

Television Programme: Dancing on the Edge with Janet Montgomery as Sarah, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Louis Lester, Anthony Head as Donaldson, Mathew Goode as Stanley, Joanna Vanderham as Pamela and Tom Hughes as Julian.

Janet Montgomery as Sarah, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Louis Lester, Anthony Head as Donaldson, Mathew Goode as Stanley, Joanna Vanderham as Pamela and Tom Hughes as Julian.

Plot-wise all is revealed when Julian, having already shown ample signs of mental instability, creepily makes advances towards Carla and then shows up at  Donaldson’s place with a gun.

In TV land, as we all know, if a gun is shown it’s gonna get used — and so it does when Julian blows his brains out in a packed restaurant. (Prior to this, his last confession is the best piece of dialogue in the whole drama.)

It turns out that Masterson, out of love for Julian, has been protecting him rather than the other way around.

Louis is smuggled to Marseilles (improbably travelling first class with the rest of the band and posing as a servant) from where he can board a ship that will take him to the U.S. (Not that we really care about Louis by this stage, or at least, I didn’t. Personally, I blame Julian’s parents.)

Great fun.

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Julian Luscombe (Tom Hughes)

 

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