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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be Lonely Island's second Hollywood venture following their 2007 film Hot Rod
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Day-Lewis stars in the movie There Will Be Blood
music
Arts and Entertainment
Brush with greatness: the artist Norman Cornish in 1999
art
Life and Style
Stress less: relaxation techniques can help focus the mind and put problems in context
art
Arts and Entertainment

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment