From 2013. The script is paramount with Dancing on the Edge. That’s no surprise perhaps, as the writer of the televison drama set in the London of the early-1930s is Stephen Poliakoff, also this new period drama’s director.
Poliakoff is best known in the early part of his career for writing dramatic pieces for Play for Today, the topical issues-driven drama series screened in prime time when drama was not relegated to the margins. He worked with jazz composer Mike Westbrook on Caught on a Train in 1980, that piece starring Peggy Ashcroft, and more recently Mike Gibbs for the films Close My Eyes (1991) and two years later, Century.
Poliakoff explains, speaking on the phone as he moved to complete the post-production of Dancing on the Edge: “Mike Gibbs produced a score basing it on Schoenberg’s pre-First World War music for strings, the Romantic period.” As for Westbrook he says he bumped into the composer as recently as last May when they were both invited to a Jubilee arts gathering. But it’s Poliakoff’s work with composer Adrian Johnston, “one of my closest creative long lasting relationships”, he says, whose evocative quietly compelling themes for such dramas as Shooting the Past, more recently Friends and Crocodiles, and the Emmy award-wining Gideon’s Daughter, that continues on Dancing on the Edge.
The pair have moved way beyond their comfort zone when they contemplated the preparation of the music for the drama. For one thing it’s jazz, in the background and in the foreground, a music, Johnston explained as shooting for the film was in full flow, he has a love of dating back to his time touring Europe as a silent film pianist.
Speaking on the street outside Wilton’s Music Hall in the East End of London near Tower Bridge as scenes from the basement jazz club were being filmed inside, Johnston explained that the music was not “slavishly following” the exact musical trends for the day, but agreed Ellington was an abiding influence behind the music.
Poliakoff recalls writing the lyrics to Johnston’s song ‘Papa’ written for Emily Blunt in Gideon’s Daughter that won the pair an Emmy. Although the writer/director says that he’s not really a lyricist – “My being a lyricist is as likely as ballet dancing” – they set to work. We got together and I said ‘you have a go’. I suggested a few titles, and polished them a bit, and then Adrian just wrote the lyrics in a burst.”
Johnston was faced with the challenge of creating a hit song for the Louis Lester band, ‘Dancing on the Moon’, sung by the band’s singer Jessie (Angel Coulby) who becomes the object of some fascination for one of the younger sons of King George V, and for the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, who visits the hotel and who the heir to the throne ends up having a dance with. Poliakoff says the inspiration for the later scene when the king’s son drums with the band is drawn from a later encounter royalty had with Duke Ellington.
“Jazz was a cult interest but it opened the window and was very fashionable. Also at the time Paul Robeson playing Othello at the Savoy in 1931 caused a big event, a black man kissing a white woman, something not seen in the theatre of the day.”
– Stephen Graham