In the BBC/Starz period drama, Dancing on the Edge, screenwriter and director Stephen Poliakoff chronicles the rapid ascent of a black jazz band in early 1930s British society, and the thorny issues of race and class. Romance and passion play a prominent part in this exploration, of course, and as each episode progresses, we watch how it breaks down barriers—and keeps them intact.
Louis Lester, leader of the Louis Lester Band, is immediately marked as “different” by circle of aristocrats and jazz fans who boost the Louis Lester Band—he is the only British citizen in his band (thereby exempt from needing to file with the immigration offices each week). Yet, his blackness separates him from his countrymen and women. Sarah, a society photographer who is friend/companion to the aristocratic Pamela Luscombe, is also an outsider—though this is less apparent on first meeting. She is the daughter of a Russian Jewish immigrant who escaped the pogroms and is determined not to rock the boat in his new country.
Louis and Sarah are instantly drawn to one another, though Louis, with his experience living in the US and the trouble that hounded his manager Wesley Holt over a liaison with a white woman, is more cautious about expressing his attraction. At the prodding of a meddling Stanley, Louis and Sarah give into their passion for one another...until a scandal over Jessie, the band's lead singer, thrusts Sarah's ability to “pass” as just another white aristocrat between them.
The Cross-Class Lovers
The romance that anchors Dancing on the Edge is between Stanley Mitchell and Pamela Luscombe, a working-class jazz journalist and an upper-class debutante, respectively. Stanley is confident and swaggering around his secretary-cum-lover, Rosie, but on edge around the languid Pamela, who is the one to initiate a relationship with him (a callback to Sarah and Louis!). As both are swept into the wealthy and playful world of royal Princes, jazz bands, reclusive aristocrats, and mysterious American millionaires, what began as a no-strings-attached liaison turns into something genuine...until the secret Pamela holds about her brother Julian forces her to choose between her new friendship with Louis and his band and closing rank with her class.
The Forbidden Fruit
Jazz singers delighted and dazzled European audiences in the 1920s and 1930s, and were openly courted by gentlemen as high as the Prince of Wales (who fell for Harlem star Florence Mills). Jessie's conquest of Julian Luscombe was just another instance of a black women entertainer enthralling an aristocrat with her talent and beauty, and the liaison was tolerated—and even approved of by the more liberal circles in which they traveled—as a sign of the “good will” between the races. Julian showers Jessie with an expensive automobile and furs, and shows her off on his arm in the hottest nightclubs and restaurants. For a working-class girl who literally sang for her supper, Julian's courtship is akin to Prince Charming sweeping Cinderella out of the scullery. Jessie's head is so turned that she risks her reputation and that of the band to be with him...and mistakenly believes she is immune to tragedy.
All three romances play out against the backdrop of the rising Nazi Party, menacing Freemasons, the gradual acceptance of jazz as legitimate music, and the chilly climate of 1930s Britain. Poliakoff manages to imbue Dancing on the Edge will passion, mystery, great music, thought-provoking topics, history, and of course glamorous attire!
Evangeline Holland is a writer of historical romances, an amateur milliner, and a really great cook. When not writing or reading, you can find her blogging about the Edwardian era on her website, the aptly titled Edwardian Promenade.