TV review - Dancing on the Edge, BBC2; Being Eileen, BBC1

 

Dancing on the Edge began with a tracking shot from a different kind of fiction entirely, a top-hatted and caped figure advancing in front of the camera through dark London streets. From behind, this is a silhouette of mastery, moving with an assured steadiness. He looks a little predatory even. But Louis isn't the hunter, he's the hunted. "I need you to get me out of the country, Stanley," he says, once he's found the man he's looking for. Stanley appears to agree. "We need a plan, don't we, Louis... we can't have you being caught."

What Louis has done – or been accused of doing – is teasingly being withheld for later because Stephen Poliakoff turns back first of all to 18 months earlier, when Louis is still a struggling jazz musician, staving off the deportation of his American band with a string of short-term gigs, and Stanley is an ambitious young hack at The Music Express, on the lookout for the next big sound, and indifferent to the borderline between journalism and management. Do we like Stanley? Not entirely sure yet, to be honest. But he's the kind of person you stick to because he knows where the best parties are likely to be.

Poliakoff has turned back quite a lot in his recent drama and it's often been to this period – a lull between catastrophes during which it was possible to believe that another catastrophe would never come. But Poliakoff also likes the intersections between tectonic plates, places where the continents grind and slip one another, and the nightclubs of the Thirties are ideal for that. Among other things (a lot of them in fact), Dancing on the Edge is a drama about social wanderlust – poor people longing to get rich and rich people who suspect that poor people might actually be having a better time than they are.

Stanley arranges a residency at a London hotel for Louis and his band, an arrangement that begins unpromisingly. Both guests and management are dubious about the music, even more so about the black musicians. But after they've added some singers to the line-up they start to acquire influential fans. A junior royal drops in one night and signals his approval. And an impulsive American millionaire, Masterson (played by John Goodman), takes them up as a new toy. A substantial chunk of last night's opening episode was taken up with one of those slightly fantastical idylls that Poliakoff is fond of – an extended "picnic" on a private train, full of insinuation, sexual possibility and odd, suspended moments of beauty.

There's a lot to keep track of right now – what with racism, xenophobia, elite conspiracy and characters who are almost self-consciously enigmatic. But Chiwetel Ejiofor and Matthew Goode are excellent as Louis and Stanley, and it looks and sounds gorgeous. Possibly just a little too gorgeous in fact. Self-indulgence can actually be a good quality in a writer, since it allows him or her to get at things that a more strictly policed imagination might not. But it helps to have a stern editor as backstop, and Poliakoff's complete control here – as writer-director – means that some scenes have a glossy fashion-plate inertia to them, as if the drama has stopped in its tracks to admire just how marvellous it all looks. It may acquire a bit of needed briskness in tonight's hour-long episode, but this was easily seductive enough to make you want to check.

Being Eileen is a spin-off of Michael Wynne's Christmas drama Lapland, about a Merseyside family finding healing and reconciliation on a Christmas jolly. Now it's been more tightly focused on Sue Johnston's character, a widow wistfully hankering after some grander meaning in life. It's all right, I guess, if effortful implausibilities for comic effect aren't a deal-breaker for you. But I'm not quite sure why the spinning off was felt to be necessary.

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