Stephen Poliakoff on Dancing on the Edge: 'I can come across as arrogant'
He has unparalleled creative freedom within the BBC. But, as Stephen Poliakoff's latest lavish drama reaches our screens, what does he make of his reputation for being a control freak?
The Guardian, Sunday 27 January 2013 / http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2013/jan/27/stephen-poliakoff-dancing-on-the-edge
'I'm quite sure," Stephen Poliakoff giggles, "there are people within the BBC who run down the corridors blocking their ears when they see me coming." His reputation certainly precedes him – a great galloping colossus of media folklore, variously casting the writer as a genius, control freak, force of nature or diva, sometimes all at the same time. Descriptions of his appearance err towards cartoonish caricature – dishevelled, wild-haired, fidgety, like a mad professor who has accidentally electrocuted himself – only adding to the mythology of a wild man of letters. But to everyone about to fall in love with his latest drama, Poliakoff may well soon be at real risk of becoming a national treasure.
Dancing on the Edge is set in London in 1932-33, and follows an ambitious, charismatic young working-class journalist on the Musical Express, who discovers and promotes a black jazz band of mostly American musicians led by a very sexy, very proud black Londoner. The band soon attracts racy, royal fans, and before long fashionable young aristocrats are falling over each other to make friends with the musicians, in some cases falling into bed with them. The drama explores the progressive allegiances, loyalties and ultimate betrayals between high society and black jazz in 30s London, with stunning performances from a cast that sees Jacqueline Bisset, John Goodman, Anthony Head and Mel Smith in surprising roles, alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthew Goode and younger newcomers such as Tom Hughes, none of whom puts in a less than spectacular performance.
Poliakoff's work is never about just one thing only, though. This is as much a drama about the advent of modern mass media, and the origins of celebrity culture; the parallels between the awe that radio broadcasting provoked back then, and our reverence for digital technology today, are unmistakable. "That was one of the things that sparked me," Poliakoff agrees. "The radio was incredibly new and, like the mobile phone, the wireless was about to take off from nothing to half the population having it really, really quickly."
It is also, in part, a parable about the dangers of a class so complacently secure in its certainties that it fails to register a new danger. The cast's references to Germany's new Nazi rulers are playfully teasing, more amused than alarmed, and quite oblivious to any menace. "Obviously Ukip is not remotely fascist, but most people think: 'Oh, they're on the rise, but they're quite a little thing.' I'm in no way equating the two, but that is slightly how we view Ukip. 'Oh, this is slightly merry, but they probably won't last.' That's how the Brits thought about Hitler then, because he'd only just become chancellor of Germany, and they didn't know whether he was going to last." But above all Poliakoff dramatises the turmoil of racism, and the conflicts inspired by skin colour.
Many of the central characters are based on real people, and the idea for the drama first came to Poliakoff while he was researching the history of the royal family in the 30s for his earlier drama, The Lost Prince. He discovered that 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". For society's aristocrats in the early 30s, the allure of black jazz musicians had very little to do with social justice, and a lot to do with the giddy thrill of defying convention. The jazz players knew their musicianship deserved acclaim – yet it still felt too good to be true, and their delight at their sudden validation wrestles with an instinct to distrust.
Unlike Poliakoff's signature atmosphere of dream-like concealment, Dancing on the Edge feels unusually lively, as if swept up by the energy of jazz. It is not, however, quite as much of a departure from his traditional territory as might first appear. The prejudice and mistrust can be seen as a parable of modern race relations – but for Poliakoff they are a metaphor for the antisemitism that has informed so much of his work.
"That was one of the reasons for making the show. What happened afterwards was obviously so awful – the holocaust, world war two, everything. But there was a time when it could have gone the other way. Because of the history of the 20th century, we tend to think the forces of darkness were unstoppable. Whenever we discover that this or that person of that time was very antisemitic, people say: 'But everybody was then. Everybody of that class was then.' But that wasn't quite true, and that's what's really interesting.
"Because if we accept that, then it's almost like we're saying, 'Nothing could have made a difference. Everybody was racist, everybody thought like that then.' And indeed, some of the good people were antisemitic; I mean, Harold Nicholson was one of the good people agitating on the sidelines to make Churchill prime minister, and was terribly anti-appeasement, and he was a terrible antisemite and a terrible racist. That's why history is so complicated – he was one of the good guys!"
Ultimately, when disaster strikes, many of the jazz band's most fervent champions betray them, assuming the worst of a black man they once considered a friend, and taking cover behind the balustrades of bigotry. "Otherwise, everybody would have been unrealistically too liberal. They had to revert to their class; that's why we appeased Hitler. Not because everybody was racist – but because they had a wonderful life. The 30s was the best time to be rich in the 20th century – or probably ever. Because you had all the Victorian servants still, but you had all the mod cons – you had a lovely fridge and your house was warm, and you had a car and a driver and all of that. So even if you were rich, and of a liberal bent, you still reverted – as most of Europe did."
Does he think that remains true of most of us today, regardless of our political convictions or fashionable affections?
"Yeah. I think most people will revert to some of the attitudes they had when they were young; 20 or so. You cling to the values that tend to inform you when you're a young adult – and it takes a huge effort of will to shed them."
The odd thing is that, while Poliakoff is right about that, in his case it doesn't appear to have applied, for when I ask about his own core – the self to which he would revert in extremis – he doesn't cite the identity of a privileged public schoolboy, but the life that came next – "The 70s values of shaggy anarchy. Disrespect of authority, hatred of systems and management speak, that sort of thing."
The son of a Russian émigré businessman and aristocratic Jewish actor, he was packed off to boarding school in Kent at the age of eight, where he was spectacularly miserable. He can still remember the moment when all sporting matches against another local school were abruptly cancelled, and he asked why. "Because they've got a black goalkeeper," was the answer. "And instinctively, as a Jew – and I was the only Jew in the school – it didn't require me to be miles ahead of my time to feel that that wasn't right. Instinctively, you felt that was wrong."
Life got a bit better when he moved on to Westminster school, and a lot better when his first play, Granny, was staged and reviewed by the Times before he'd even sat his A-levels. Poliakoff won a place to study history at Cambridge, and his decision to quit long before graduating was probably considered insane at the time, but judging by the singlemindedness of his subsequent career, self-doubt will not have troubled his decision. At 24 he was made writer-in-residence at the National Theatre, and throughout the 70s his plays established him as one of Britain's leading young playwrights. He began making films for TV in the early 80s, and made some feature films for cinema – Runners, Hidden City, Close My Eyes – but even though he still writes for the stage to this day, it is as a television dramatist that he has always been best known.
Poliakoff is not the only writer whose work has successfully graced the stage, TV and the movie screen – but he is one of the very few who decided artistic control meant more to him than Hollywood wealth. Faced with the choice of becoming a well paid cog in a cinematic machine mostly good at making money, or an auteur who could make brilliant television, it wasn't much of a dilemma.
Along with Dennis Potter and Alan Bleasdale, Poliakoff helped define British TV drama, with She's Been Away, Shooting the Past and Perfect Strangers; and more recently Friends and Crocodiles, Gideon's Daughter and Joe's Palace. For many years he has directed his own work, and in effect produces, casts and edits it all too. Although almost all of it has enjoyed both popular and critical acclaim, he has also attracted a reputation for arrogance. I don't glimpse any sign of it during the hour or so we spend together, so before we part I ask how he feels about the label.
"Well," he chuckles. "I'm sort of quite persistent about what I want to achieve. I suppose that people who are preparing surprises for the world, as opposed to being hired to direct other people's work – they are inflicting their vision of the world. I am a playwright, and obviously that's an assertive act. To plough that through and get what you want, it requires you to be, I suppose, quite certain. And obviously," he begins to giggle again, "to some people that can come across as arrogant."
Does he think it's arrogance? "Well …" He hesitates. "No, I don't think so. I would call myself an obsessive character. But I'm not quite certain that's arrogance so much as conviction. You have to, to keep going and be excited about doing more. It comes from a sort of self-belief, I suppose."
This time round, though, faced with making his first ever five-part drama, "the most punishing, demanding" project of his entire career, he did consider sharing directorial duties with someone else. For practical reasons, the idea was abandoned, but I can't imagine he was disappointed. "Well, it was my, my … my …" he stutters in protest, then shrugs and grins. "People did say: 'I'll believe it when I see it.'"
He does concede, however, that his creative autonomy is almost unheard of in the BBC. "But I've got quite a good record of spotting people. On The Lost Prince, when Tom Hollander played George V, which was quite a surprising choice at the time, when the BBC saw it they rang me up and said: 'He's amazing. We'd all thought you'd gone mad when you cast him. But he's brilliant.' And I thought, 'Well, lucky I didn't know they thought that. Even I might have had a moment's doubt if I'd known they thought I'd gone mad. But if I didn't have that freedom, well then I might as well make movies."
He is, he cheerfully concedes, quite an unusual character, renowned for twiddling a plastic drinking straw on account of having what he calls an "overactive gene", which can sometimes make him look "a bit insane". But it is not true, he insists, that the BBC writes him a blank cheque. "People go on and on about my budget, but I don't get any more money than anyone else. I've read, 'He was the most expensive,' and you can't write to the paper and say: 'Hang on a minute'. But it is a total myth."
Dancing on the Edge was made for BBC2, but it's fairly clear that he now wishes he'd fought for it to be on BBC1. "For me, that would have been extraordinarily interesting. It wasn't discussed, because the money was there for BBC2. But yeah, it would have been really interesting to see how it did on BBC1." Why didn't he fight for that? His awkward chuckle sounds a lot like a yes. "That's a good question." I ask about the rumours that this will be the first series of an ongoing drama serial, and he stutters and stalls, before admitting: "I feel there's something very potent there. It's taken an enormous amount of energy out of me. But we'll see what happens. We'll see how it goes."
He later added an extra episode – "the seventh hour" – which plays with the form by revisiting the narrative through interviews with the musicians by the Musical Express journalist. "So it starts as a straight interview, with us learning more back story, but then it turns into a real drama. It is a chamber piece compared to the main drama, but it was great to do because the actors were so into their characters by then. Besides," he grins, "I just think it's nice to use television like that."
It's fairly safe to assume that he is currently driving the BBC's marketing executives crazy, badgering them to trail the show on BBC1. "I think most people who know me would say that I worry quite a bit about certain things that maybe aren't hugely important. At the moment I'm obsessed that we get enough trails on BBC1. Most people will think: 'That's probably not the most important thing in the world.' I don't think I'm arrogant. But I do have an ability to waste energy on not-crucial things."
Dancing on the Edge, BBC Two, review
Adrian Michaels reviews the first episode of Stephen Poliakoff's new drama, Dancing on the Edge (BBC Two).
By Adrian Michaels 04 Feb 2013 in The Telegraph / http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/9848418/Dancing-on-the-Edge-BBC-Two-review.html
It’s London 1933, at night. You can tell by the Savoy-style thick-and-thin lettering on the screen saying “London 1933”. But wait! We are following a sinister and caped figure in a top hat. Am I still watching Ripper Street?
It transpired that we were following jazz band leader Louis Lester, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and he wasn’t, in spite of what we were supposed to think, up to no good. In fact, he was the one worried about being followed, but not concerned enough to keep his slowly moving becaped shadow out of the middle of the street. It was a lovingly used image straight out of Nosferatu.
This was the frankly weird start to Dancing on the Edge (BBC Two), the latest drama from Stephen Poliakoff, the feted director and writer of The Lost Prince, Shooting the Past and much else. In the first episode of this flat music five-parter, it wasn’t the only bum note.
We were cast into the beginnings of the London jazz scene. Black musicians, many with American ties, were wowing socialites and members of the Royal family. The Poliakoff palette was in
full bloom, as were the doom-pregnant moments of portent. The clothes and music were good, and there was a rounded mix of promising Brits and American stars on show, from Doctor Who’s Jenna-Louise Coleman to Coen Brothers’ regular John Goodman.
But clichés abounded, as clichés do. The band was looking for singers, so it happened to pick the last people to turn up for the audition. Also, on occasion, there was artless weaving of explanation into the script, as when the band’s manager, played by Ariyon Bakare, blurted out apropos of nothing, and to a character who must have known already, that he had been in trouble in Chicago and could face execution if sent home.
Worse though, Poliakoff veered more often the other way: keeping us pointlessly in the dark and mistaking that for intrigue. Who are all these people and how do they know each other? What are their motivations? Dogged viewers will doubtless learn more in future episodes, but in the first part there were more hidden agendas than a convention of camouflaged diarists.
Goodman’s Masterson is an enigmatic fat American. Anthony Head is the enigmatic Donaldson: rich and connected to royalty. But why is the enigmatic Sarah in his set? And what is her enigmatic Russian father’s game?
The drama is lifted by Bakare’s scenes, particularly towards the end as he breaks down, smashes furniture and is carted off to be deported. How cruel to have the best character exiled from screen with four episodes to go.
Dancing on the Edge: Stephen Poliakoff interview
David Gritten meets Stephen Poliakoff, whose glitzy new TV drama Dancing on the Edge evokes the era when jazz musicians were the darlings of royalty.
By David Gritten 31 Jan 2013 in The Telegraph / http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/9832513/Dancing-on-the-Edge-Stephen-Poliakoff-interview.html
Dancing on the Edge, writer-director Stephen Poliakoff’s new television drama for BBC Two, is easily his most ambitious work yet: a five-part series set in early-Thirties Britain, with a huge cast of characters ranging from royalty to the very poor, and big themes – including economic depression, celebrity culture and immigration.
Yet another major element in Dancing on the Edge is its music. Unfolding events are seen through the eyes of a fictional black jazz band who rapidly achieve success, start to play engagements in luxury London hotels and chic clubs, and soon become the darlings of a high-society crowd.
This 11-piece band are led by their urbane pianist Louis Lester (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), who writes all their material. He and his musicians witness and become embroiled in other people’s power struggles, corruption and violence.
By placing Louis and his colleagues at the centre of the action, Poliakoff acknowledges a largely forgotten aspect of British musical history; black musicians, most of them playing jazz, were all the rage among London’s rich and beautiful set in the Thirties.
“There was this wonderful conjunction of this music leading members of the aristocracy to mingle with black musicians and it became very fashionable,” Poliakoff says. As with so many trends in high society back then, the royal family was influential in its growth, which began a few years previously.
“The Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII, went to see the singer Florence Mills many times,” Poliakoff says. Mills, an American cabaret singer who sometimes performed risqué songs (I’m Cravin’ For That Kind of Love) and toured Europe with her revue, Blackbirds, in 1926, was the first black American to become an international star.
Mills died the following year, but the Prince was hooked on black music; Poliakoff says that in his researches for his acclaimed BBC television drama The Lost Prince, “I learnt that he had hung around with the Duke Ellington band [who visited Britain in 1933]. That haunted me for many years.”
The Prince of Wales and his younger brother Prince George often went out on the town together to listen to black jazz bands. (The popular press dubbed them “the playboy princes”.) Dancing on the Edge includes a scene with the two princes arriving at a posh London hotel to see the Lester band play – and by staying to dance, bestowing royal approval.
This attraction for the British aristocracy to black musicians echoed what had already happened in America. Fashionable New Yorkers had flocked to the Cotton Club in Harlem – for part of its heyday a whites-only establishment – to see black entertainers such as Ellington, Cab Calloway and Jimmie Lunceford.
“There was obviously something exotic about [black musicians] to people who had everything and were of a slightly bohemian bent,” says Dancing on the Edge’s musical director Paul Englishby. Yet these same musicians had to enter and leave many of the exclusive venues they played by the back door.
Inevitably, scandals arose from this fraternising between the musicians and Britain’s high society. Prince George is widely believed to have had a fling with Florence Mills back in the Twenties. Edwina Mountbatten reportedly had a liaison with “Hutch”, Grenada-born cabaret singer and pianist Leslie Hutchinson, who after arriving from Paris in 1927 became one of Britain’s biggest stars, playing at the best London hotels, with residencies at such venues as Café de Paris and Quaglino’s.
Then as now, musicians had sexual magnetism. Yet their music had powerful appeal too. The Prince of Wales was a genuine Hutch fan, and as Poliakoff notes, “ended up playing drums – rather badly, one imagines – at a party thrown by Lord Beaverbrook with Duke Ellington’s band”. This is referenced in Dancing on the Edge, though Poliakoff has Prince George enthusiastically sitting in on drums with Lester’s band at a private party.
Some black jazz musicians in London in the Thirties were American; others hailed from the Caribbean, but many had spent time in New York. A number had worked in the Merchant Navy, or played in bands on cruise ships.
A few names emerged as key figures on whom the Lester story might be loosely based. Ken “Snakehips” Johnson, born in Guyana, was a bandleader and dancer, who gained his nickname from his fluid dance movies. “He was very handsome,” Poliakoff says. “He looked like a young Denzel Washington.”
Johnson joined the Emperors of Jazz, fronted by popular Jamaican jazz trumpeter Leslie Thompson. He took over the band in 1936, and later led the West Indian Orchestra, who were playing a residency at Café de Paris in March 1941 when the London venue was hit by Luftwaffe bombs; Snakehips, with 33 others, died in the blast.
Then there was Leslie “Jiver” Hutchinson (not to be confused with “Hutch”). Jiver was also a trumpeter from Jamaica, and played with Trinidadian drummer Happy Blake’s band at Soho’s Cuba Club before joining Thompson’s Emperor of Jazz.
All these men were stars in their own right, the talk of the town. Poliakoff’s creation Lester is a composite. “We imagined he’d seen Duke Ellington in the States, heard cutting-edge jazz in USA and brought it back to Britain,” says Englishby. “So we took certain liberties, because his fictional band are pushing musical boundaries. They’re not stuck in rigid post-Twenties rhythms.
“Their music is really more typical of the late Thirties than the years in which the series is set,” the series’ composer Adrian Johnston adds. “I wanted to move from a raw form of jazz to something more sophisticated to show Louis’s development as the story progressed.”
Johnston’s songs and lyrics and Englishby’s arrangements combined to create a Louis Lester Songbook – a body of work by a fictional musician. They devised some 40 original numbers for the Lester band to play on-screen; half of them now also appear on a soundtrack album.
They and Poliakoff agreed the Lester band needed two female vocalists and auditioned singers who might also act, without success. Finally they found two actresses who could sing: Angel Coulby (Gwen in television’s Merlin) and Wunmi Mosaku.
“Angel is a mezzo and Wunmi is alto, which was ideal,” says Englishby. “Both sang on the album. When we heard Angel we were thanking the Lord. She has this voice that sounds like it was from the Thirties – it’s totally natural. Wunmi’s is deeper, with a Nina Simone/Sarah Vaughan feel. You can’t teach people that.”
Thus music forms the bedrock of the series and its portrayal of a unique, vibrant era in music history. “If we think in terms of the enormous racism at that time, there was a window where things might have turned out differently,” Poliakoff says. “I find that a wonderfully haunting time to set a drama.”