Stephen Poliakoff: We still tend to cast black people in working class roles

The acclaimed British playwright and director tells Daisy Wyatt that despite criticism of his recent TV drama 'Dancing on the Edge' it is his 'strongest' work
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Dancing on the Edge is more prescient to modern life than creator Stephen Poliakoff initially intended. The six-part period drama for BBC Two, which hit our screens in February, was conceived just before the 2008 financial crash, and shows a society emerging from an economic downturn, obsessed with celebrity and new technology.

“There are great similarities, such as the great gap between rich and poor, a huge obsession with immigration and also everybody [being] uncertain about the future,” says Poliakoff. “But I think that’s what drama should do- to play to the imagination so that people think there are some things that are like now.”

The drama follows the rise of the Louis Lester Band, a group of black musicians who offer a home-grown answer to the American jazz explosion. The band is first met with outrage, shocking elderly audience members at a conservative London hotel. But they catch the eye of a group of socialites and a Music Express journalist, who work to catapult them to stardom and project them into the path of princes, influential investors and even the Prime Minister.

But, the aristocracy’s fascination with the band, and total lack of racism, seems an unlikely. Is this a case of modern day idealism projected back onto the 1930s? “I don’t think it was a more tolerant society then. What I tried to show is that not everybody was a racist. If we’d been tested like the rest of Europe it may have been that some of the least obvious people were brave,” he says.

Dancing on the Edge is fiction, but it is inspired by real life stories Poliakoff discovered when researching his 2003 television drama The Lost Prince. He found that the future Duke of Windsor Edward VIII had hung around with the Duke Ellington band, and went to see African-American singer Florence Mills more than 25 times.  Louis’ character was partly based on jazz musician Earl Tucker, known as “Snakehips” because of his sexy dance moves.

Louis (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an alluring combination of someone who can perform free-flowing jazz on stage, but be self-contained and debonair in real life. He is impeccably dressed to the point of looking like an aristocrat, something that Poliakoff admits is “surprising” to see in a black character on television in Britain.

“I still think we tend to cast black people in working class roles all the time, much more so than America as they have a much larger black middle class,” he says. “I think there is a little lack of imagination in that casting, and I know one or two black actors that come across as posh and find it very difficult to get hired because people are always looking for drug dealers and gangsters on the street.”

But it is perhaps too crude to read Dancing on the Edge as solely an allegory of race relations. Poliakoff says he purposefully did not want to make Louis too noble a character, as portrayed in his adulation of the elite and his susceptibility to false promise. As a writer and director his main aim was to be “accurate about human nature”.

The drama however drew criticism that Poliakoff had favoured types over characters, who rattled around on sets with “glossy, fashion-plate inertia” in a slow-paced plot that lacked substance.

Poliakoff dismisses the criticism as “rubbish” and calls Dancing on the Edge “a piece of storytelling that is the strongest I’ve ever done”. Was the criticism a sign that the director is more at home writing for theatre, away from a TV audience’s need for immediacy and hard hitting plot? I wonder if Poliakoff finds it easier to invest subtlety into his plays. Apparently not.

“Theatre and film are very different disciplines, but I think people would say subtlety is one of my main interests. I think television is a very subtle medium and I think it always has been and that is one of its main attractions.”

Poliakoff’s prolific career as a writer stretches back over 40 years, and he has directed all of his work in the past 25 years. His initial interest was in the theatre, and he has written over 20 plays for The Royal Court and The National Theatre among others. But in the last 15 years, aside from a return to theatre when he wrote and directed My City in 2011, Poliakoff has switched his allegiance to television.

“Television is not driven by box office hits, you don’t always have to have a happy ending. At its best it has an extraordinary combination of appealing to a mass audience by being able to reflect the subtleties of human behaviour and the conflicting complexities of people.”

Dancing on the Edge is now out on DVD, from ITV Studios Global Entertainment