Dancing on the Edge is his new BBC series charting an all black Jazz band in 1930s London. It has a few problems. It's been criticised for slow-pacing, but that's cool with me; it's all very beautiful, as usual, and the actors are flawless. There are however four glaring problems. The first two have always been there with Poliokoff but become really obvious in this miniseries, the second two are unique to Dancing on the Edge and the forth really matters:
- Rich people spend their money on things ordinary folk can't afford. Thus rich people are treated as eccentric and fascinating, even when those characters are in no way eccentric or fascinating.
- When something interesting or notable is happening, characters will say so, in case its not obvious. "Isn't this an amazing party?", "Isn't it fantastic that we should all be here together at this time and place, especially what with us living in a poignant historical context and all?" And perhaps worst of all, one character actually says, "Other people's private lives. One never knows what goes on!"
- The inexplicable compulsion on the part of all characters to say the name Stanley in an emphatic way at least once every two minutes, and every sentence if the character of Stanley is in the room.
- Apparently, nice white jazz fans in 1930s London are magically and completely colourblind.
Here's the deal. In 2013 UK, there are white people, who are good people and have black friends or even family members, who love music, films and books by black people, but who sometimes say and do the wrong thing around race; they make an assumption based on stereotypes, they use clumsy language or make an unwise joke. Same with straight folk and queer folk, non-disabled and disabled folk, even - perhaps especially - men and women. Most good decent people make awkward slips. We live in a prejudiced world, we grew up here and even if we have no prejudice in our hearts, this stuff is part of our culture, so part of us we all have to keep an eye on.
In 1930s London, there were white people, who were good people who loved jazz and had black friends and lovers, who fairly often said and did the wrong thing around race. They would have been far more conscious of race, living as they did in a very racist mono-cultural world. They would have grown up with racial stereotypes being put forward to them as scientific facts. We see it in the literature written by groovy, progressive white folk of the time (Waugh, Lawrence et al.), and forgive the language and racist humour because it is of its time. It was a very racist time. It's not like Nazism succeeded in Germany because they were the only racists in Europe - they were just the most desperate and demoralised racists around.
Poliokoff has created a world in which only negative characters ever remark upon or behave clumsily about race. White characters who love jazz are immune from racism. When racism is discussed, all the nice young white people find it utterly incomprehensible. I have the sense that there will come a breaking point in the narrative, where the white folk may well close ranks to scapegoat their black friend, but while the going is good? Only sinister characters and money-minded squares give so much as a raised eyebrow when the band leader forms a romantic relationship with a middle class white girl.
This is not an unusual world for television and film, where prejudice is often seen as something individual, rather than cultural, even in narratives which hinge on prejudice being a massive issue in the lives of its victims (this is particularly remarked upon in science fiction and fantasy, where writers often create a sexist or racist world, which they people entirely with egalitarians).
It's perhaps most noticeable in something like Dancing on the Edge because it is a rare British drama with people of colour at the centre of things, it's beautifully made and because it is about a historical period - would it really make the audience uncomfortable to imagine that people in the 1930s had very different, contradictory ideas about race? If the history of 20th century music teaches us one thing, it is that it is possible for privileged white folk to dance, cry, worship and make love to the music of black folk without eliminating racism by the sixteenth bar - or the sixteenth album.
You know how I feel - art matters dreadfully! I believe that many people will have overcome some of their own prejudice by listening to beautiful music produced by black people or gay people especially, other marginalised groups as well. Music demonstrates that we all feel a great deal, and often some of our highest, lowest, deepest and most personal feelings are shared by song-writing strangers.
But for many people, music is a product to be consumed, its production a little like a clever trick, not the expression of something both essentially human and essentially higher than that. Racist ideas around black music were never - are still not - exclusive to people who dislike the music black folk make.
The early years of British jazz provide such a good opportunity to explore these issues, or at least demonstrate the likely reality. So far, no exploration and an . The jazz band live in a racist world with very few racists in it - and so far, no truly powerful racists (even though they met the future King Edward VIII, a vile racist and personal friend of Hitler).
Two episodes to go.