TV review: Dancing on the Edge, BBC2; Black Mirror, Channel 4

 

Whatever else Dancing on the Edge has taught us – with its exasperating blend of plangency and clumsiness – it is that Stephen Poliakoff is not a natural director of thriller action. Should Hollywood be looking for someone to helm Die Hard 6, they are, I would suggest, unlikely to come knocking at his door.

That's the point of him, of course. The world is full of people who can do car crashes, but writers who can craft moments of enigma are in shorter supply. The last episode of Poliakoff's drama about prejudice and class tourism in pre-war London reminded you of his ability to deliver a scene whose meaning is just tantalisingly out of reach. But it also featured narrative machinery so surreally creaky that you wondered at times whether it would end up being explained away as a dream sequence.

The episode was almost entirely concerned with Louis' escape. The police are convinced that he killed Jessie and the fascinated support of his upper-crust sponsors, Donaldson and Lady Cremone, has melted away to be replaced by a rueful indifference. Only Stanley and Sarah seem prepared to help him, though they go about it in the strangest way imaginable, and aren't helped by Louis' own obtuseness. An example: Stanley arranges a car to spirit Louis away to a hiding place in the suburbs. On the way, Louis, understandably, remonstrates. The manicured avenues of Metroland don't strike him as the best place to conceal a black band leader dressed in white tie and tails. So Stanley stops the car and the two men get out into the street to have a row about it. It proved entirely beyond my capacity to explain why.

Some of the scenes that followed were even stranger. When the police do coincidentally turn up at Louis' hiding place (to respond to a disturbance next door), he didn't conceal himself inside but sauntered away, still in full evening dress, and ended up in a local bowls club. As an on-screen image this was rather good, the epitome of middle-England, all in their whites, staring amazed at this sudden apparition. But as an edge-of-the-seat moment in a drama it was simply incredible. Having instructed Louis to pretend to be her servant, Pamela ordered him about in transparent pantomime and then blew the charade anyway by having him sit down next to her. Poliakoff doesn't just think his bowls club worthies are prejudiced, it seems, he thinks they're utterly dim too. And Louis and Pamela apparently aren't much smarter.

Against that, you'd have to set a moment of real tension (arising out of an unknown psychology rather than an improbable one) when Julian visited Donaldson and showed his two little girls the gun he's brought with him. And you'd throw in too a moment that went against the grain of television realism but delivered a lovely and poignant ending, as Carla sang a Negro spiritual to the assembled stuffed shirts at the hotel. Not entirely sure where the scales settle at the end, but it says something that they hovered at all after scenes of such awkwardness.

In the last of his Black Mirror series, Charlie Brooker pulled off another unexpected turn, setting us up for a crass "all politicians are con artists" satire but leaving you thinking a little harder about the consequences of such blanket cynicism. The storyline featured a melancholy television comic, trapped in the career cul-de-sac of providing the voice for a scabrous animated bear, who conducts Ali G-style interviews with unsuspecting politicians. When his producer decides he should stand in a by-election, he's horrified to discover that the electorate find him more interesting than the issues – his feelings further complicated by the fact that he's fallen for the Labour candidate. Like last week's drama, it felt a little rough around the edges here and there. But I wish we had more roughness like it.

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