Socialist Worker

Dancing on the Edge: Did the rich establishment really learn to swing?

by Sarah Ensor
Issue No. 2337

Set in the early 1930s, this five part drama opens with a black man, Louis Lester (Chiwetel Ejiofor), in immaculate evening dress sidling into a club.

He is looking for Stanley (Matthew Goode), chief writer on Music Express magazine. Louis’ hand is cut and he tells Stanley he must get out of Britain.

Then it flashes back to when they first met and Louis led a black British jazz band struggling to be appreciated.

The band’s talent and the fact that they are taken up by the young rich, who are appalled by racism, mean they soon achieve this.

Someone knows the Prince of Wales and his brothers—and the princes love jazz. It’s all so modern and they’re not racist either.

You might have thought that the prince—who went on to become Edward VIII—was a bigoted Nazi sympathiser.


But here the young people all love to dance and nobody agrees with Adolf Hitler and no one says anything antisemitic.

The ordinary people are there too but they’re quite worthy or silent.

There is racism but it’s from old poshos or the Alien Registration Office, whose staff act like Nazis.

For mainstream drama this has lots of black characters but most of them don’t speak. Even an apparently central character, such as Wesley, the band’s manager, seems mostly to demonstrate how bad institutional racism is.

The young women singers are two dimensional.

This isn’t really about black musicians, but about a white establishment and its interests.

The final episode will be a series of “interviews” with the characters about their lives. Perhaps someone will break ranks and say their music is a resistance to poverty, racism and a rancid ruling class—but I doubt it.

Dancing on the edge

Written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff

BBC 2, Mondays from 4 February

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