TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This weekend, the Starz cable network presents the U.S. premier of a five-part miniseries called "Dancing on the Edge." It's set in London in the early 1930s, and it's about a black jazz band confronting and overcoming prejudice and mixing with members of the royal family. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (singing) All aboard dead of night express.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: One of my most enjoyable parts of being a critic is steering people towards something so good, but so relatively obscure that they might never have checked it out unless they had been nudged in that direction. My personal best example of that ever was the imported BBC miniseries "The Singing Detective," by Dennis Potter, about 25 years ago.
I'm not directly comparing this weekend's new British import, "Dancing On the Edge," to that earlier masterpiece, but they have a lot in common. Both are period costume pieces. Both are centered around music, and present very full, very unpredictable characters, and some exceptionally intriguing performances.
Both are about large themes, as well as small moments. And one final link between the two: the writer and director of "Dancing on the Edge," Stephen Poliakoff, has long been considered one of the modern artistic descendants to Dennis Potter. Not a lot of Poliakoff's work has made it over here, but what has made the trip has been singularly impressive.
His 2003 telemovie, "The Lost Prince," was a fact-based drama about a member of the royal family locked away because of his epilepsy. And another TV drama from that same era, "Friends and Crocodiles," gave Damian Lewis of "Homeland" an early leading role as a brilliant, but unstable businessman.
Poliakoff's newest drama, a miniseries made for BBC-2, takes basic facts unearthed by him while researching "The Lost Prince" and reworks them, mixing historical figures with fictional ones. "Dancing on the Edge" is about a jazz band in the early '30s made up of British citizens and American and Caribbean musicians on work visas trying to crack the dance halls and radio playlists.
One man in their corner is Stanley, a white reporter and columnist played by Matthew Goode. He writes for Music Express, a new music magazine similar to Britain's influential Melody Maker, and decides to help push the Louis Lester Jazz Band into the winner's circle. But they have to confront reluctant hotel ballroom bookers, and, among some of the customers, obvious prejudice.
In this scene, Stanley confronts Louis about calmly accepting the attitudes of some of his ruder audience members. Louis is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who stars in the new movie "12 Years a Slave."
(SOUNDBITE OF MINISERIES "DANCING ON THE EDGE")
MATTHEW GOODE: (as Stanley) Nathan told me that when you played there on Christmas Day, some Germans from the embassy walked out as soon as you came on.
CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (as Louis) Yes. But that was to be expected. Mm-hmm.
GOODE: (as Stanley) What do you mean, that was to be expected? Does nothing make you angry, Louis?
EJIOFOR: (as Louis) Well, of course, it does, but from what I hear, this new lot in Germany, the National Socialists, well, they want to...
GOODE: (as Stanley) String you all up. Can't wait to do it. Yes, precisely what they want to do.
EJIOFOR: (as Louis) Let's just say they don't like jazz music quite a lot. So it was to be expected. It doesn't mean I'm happy about it.
GOODE: (as Stanley) Not happy about it? Is that all?
EJIOFOR: (as Louis) No, it's not all. But it's not clear exactly what one can do about it right at this moment. And why are you suddenly so interested, anyway?
GOODE: (as Stanley) What do you mean, suddenly? It's not suddenly. Believe it or not, I think when one sees intolerance like that, as crude as that, you have to do something to expose it.
EJIOFOR: (as Louis) And that's going to make a difference, is it? You, Stanley Mitchell, a music journalist, are going to make a difference. You're going to get rid of prejudice all by yourself.
GOODE: (as Stanley) I didn't say I'd make a difference. Well, not right away.
BIANCULLI: The rise of the Louis Lester Jazz band, in the face of such odds, would be the central spine of most dramas of this type. But Poliakoff is up to something bigger and grander. For one thing, he's fascinated by the way some members of the royal family were drawn to jazz music and to black performers, with equal enthusiasm.
For another, he's interested in what's happening politically between the two world wars. There's also a murder mystery or two, thrown into the mix as a very important ingredient. The five episodes, beginning Saturday night on the Starz cable network, are brimming with twists, surprises, delightful set pieces and some very unexpected performances.
John Goodman plays a wealthy American who is very much a part of the British scene in the '30s. And Jacqueline Bisset, as a reclusive aristocrat, is absolutely wonderful. There are parts, too, for Anthony Head from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Jenna-Louise Coleman from "Doctor Who," and even Janet Montgomery, a British actress who was imported for and wasted in the recent CBS drama series "Made in Jersey."
"Dancing on the Edge" will please TV fans who are eagerly awaiting the next round of "Downton Abbey," and music fans, as well. This isn't period music they're playing and singing in this miniseries. It's just made to sound that way, written by Adrian Johnston. It's a beautiful job.
The music has to be good enough to make you root for the Louis Lester Jazz Band to make it big, and as the core of this new TV import, it works. "Dancing on the Edge" is as much fun to hear as it is to watch.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. You can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair to find out what's coming up on our show, and learn more about what's happening behind the scenes.