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Stephen Poliakoff on his fabulous new BBC drama Dancing On The Edge



Dancing on the Edge is the stunning 5 part drama set in the 1930’s and written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff. Here he tells all about the making of the BBC serial.

Where did the idea come from to create Dancing On The Edge?
The idea came to me when I was researching The Lost Prince. I was researching George, the fourth son of the King and I discovered that his brother the future Duke of Windsor Edward VIII had hung around with the Duke Ellington band. That haunted me for many years. I decided to look at the financial crash of the 1930s, which of course is very relevant to us at the moment, but I decided to look at that time through the eyes of a fictional black band but based on or suggested by things that had really happened. That’s how the show originated.

I thought the 1930s was an extraordinarily interesting time. I myself have written a lot about the end of the 1930s, the eve of the Second World War, the rise of fascism and all that. But in the early 1930s just after the great crash it was a melting pot of all sorts of things happening; no one knew, just like now, where things were going to lead. There was this wonderful conjunction of this music leading members of the aristocracy to mingle with black musicians and it became very fashionable. The future king Edward VIII went to see the singer Florence Mills many times, more than 25 times. I thought this was an extraordinary window. If we think in terms of the enormous racism at that time, there was a window where things might have turned out differently. I find that a wonderfully haunting time to set a drama.

I didn’t want to write the Duke Ellington story because then one is bound into recording what happened, and speculation and what is true and what is not. I wanted to write a fiction, but as I said, to have the suggestion of the classes mingling – people who never expected to be in the same room together. This was not just the Royal Family. It went through various members of the elite. I didn’t think that that had ever been written about.

There were homegrown black jazz musicians at the time. For example Leslie Thompson was incredibly charismatic and looked a little bit like Denzel Washington. He suggests Chiwetel’s character. At a time there were members of the press taking a great interest in this music. A writer called Spike Hughes, who wrote for Melody Maker at the time, inspired Matthew’s character. This is where I got the idea of this character championing black music this early. When you think: was Melody Maker around at this time? Yes it was. It was started in the late 20s. The world was shifting already.

How did you cast such an extraordinary array of major Hollywood stars and newcomers?
Casting is everything to directing. It’s a truism. It’s a huge part of the job. I write very particular characters so finding the right actor is a crucial and long search. I’ve been lucky enough to have amazing casting for most of the work that I’ve done. Andy Pryor, who has cast all my work over the last 15 years, and I knew that we had set the bar quite high already. We have done work with people just before they became stars, like Emily Blunt and Tom Hardy, and previously with Matthew McFadyen and before then Clive Owen, Ruth Wilson, Gemma Arterton and Rebecca Hall. We like discovering people. Even though people think I have always worked with Bill Nighy, Tim Spall and Lindsay Duncan or Michael Gambon, I have championed young actors. I tend to write a lot of young roles. We were searching for new faces as well as well-known faces. First of all we started by casting Louis. Chiwetel Ejiofor is such a fantastic leading man and also plays the piano; he is very glamorous in this role. We’re used to seeing him in many different guises in Hollywood and on the London stage. He has been tremendously supportive to the whole project; he has an overview of the whole thing, which is unusual for an actor. I found him a brilliant colleague as well as an actor.

I had seen Matthew in various works including Brideshead in which I thought he was brilliant. I’ve always been watching him and thinking this is a brilliant young actor. He’s a revelation as Stanley. He’s incredible to watch. He has an enormous amount of energy, which is very important to this role.

For the other younger roles we wanted to work with actors whom we haven’t worked with before. The great thing about having a bit of freedom when I work is that I can cast whom I like. I actually have a very good track record at discovering stars. I think the BBC trusts me and I hope it has been mutually beneficial. I wasn’t under pressure to deliver familiar names for the younger roles, so the young women were fairly unknown. Janet Montgomery was relatively unknown, although had done a couple of episodes of Skins. She then had managed to carve a career, which is very unusual for young British actors, in American television.

I’ve seen a lot of girls for the role of Pamela, which was eventually to be cast with Joanna Vanderham. It’s quite a difficult role to play. She has to be both frivolous and serious. She has already been cast in another huge role since the BBC saw her in my rushes. I think she, like Janet, is going to be a real force. She’s only in her early 20s. She has an amazing acting technique to someone so young.

Jenna-Louise Coleman was then cast as the new Doctor Who girl, which again is not a complete coincidence! She plays Rosie and again is a brilliant talent.

I auditioned Tom Hughes for my play last year entitled My City. He was auditioning with a woman I know and she turned to me and said, “That boy is a star!”

The most interesting thing of all, I think, was the search for our two singers. We staged open auditions and had lots of singers who we hoped to connect. We’ve actually ended up with two very experienced actors who bizarrely have never sung in public. Angel Coulby’s agent didn’t even know she could sing. If we would have known that earlier we would have saved ourselves a lot of time seeing roomfuls of young singers!

Wunmi Mosaku, who plays the other singer Carla, grows in stature as a character throughout the show. People will know her for her performance in I Am Slave. Again nobody had ever heard her sing and yet she had this amazing voice. What the audiences will hear in show are their real voices. They’re not manipulated or affected in any way, it’s their authentic singing. She has extraordinary presence on screen.

And of course we had our legends John Goodman and Jacqueline Bisset. John, of course, is an amazing act and I think this is a different role for him – both powerful and very tender. He has such a huge presence and manages to grow and grow the character through the story. Rather than a cameo, John’s character finally reaches quite tragic dimensions. Jacqueline, of course, who was incredible and I have to say was a pin-up of my youth. I’m old enough to remember Jacquline as a boy going to see Bullitt; she was also fantastic in Truffaut’s Day For Night, which is one of my favourite films. She’s so lovely and touching in the show, in a way that I think when people haven’t seen her before.

It was also wonderful to have two homegrown legends, like Caroline Quentin whom I had never met before. She’s an incredibly joyful presence on-screen. And Mel Smith with whom I go right back to my youth. He’s playing are incredibly different role from anything he’s played before. He is truly authentic at the entertainment manager of the hotel Mr. Schlesinger.

Maybe one of the most interesting presences was Anthony Head who I have never met before but obviously knew his work from Buffy. Here we have in playing a very dark character and I don’t think again that anyone had seen him in a role like this before.

I think it’s fascinating to cast people against type as I did with Tom Hollander as George V. I don’t think anyone at the time thought that Tom was right for George V, least of all Tom! But he was brilliant in that role. And I think Anthony is fantastic in this role, a revelation.

There’re a number of senior actors we wanted to be in the shadows like Jane Asher who plays a very forceful aristocratic mother. She only has a few things but is incredibly effective. Once you see the relationship between Jane’s character and Tom’s you understand much more why Tom’s character Julian is the way he is. I don’t want to tar all aristocrats of that time with the same brush, but there was certainly this coldness towards their children. The idea of putting your children first is a very modern idea, certainly it was the reverse then. Jane is someone who was in my early plays and it’s certainly a joy to be working with her again.

How did you approach your role as director?
I have directed all of my own work for the last 25 years or so. It’s always an interesting exercise when you stop being a writer and start being a director. All of my work is made on a brutal schedule. People may see the beautiful images on the screen and assume that I am allowed to do whatever I want. But that’s just not the case. What made it particularly difficult was that we were working with a show that did not have a standing set. Other shows are able to use the same location and the same scenery, but in our case we were moving from location to location every day. You have to remain on schedule and that is a fearsome discipline, which I have had to learn to live with. It’s a little like having constant mild toothache. But because I know what is important in a scene I am able to recognize what can be done in a more expedient way.

For television drama in general most people do five days rehearsal. I rehearsed for three weeks. It then allows everybody to be able to come to the production really understanding what they’re doing and why they’re there. It helps to build up confidence of the actors and it helps me to realise what I have written too. It’s a slight of hand really. You aim to achieve the quality of a feature film but on the budget of a TV series.

Music plays an important part in Dancing On The Edge. How did you create the soundtrack and songs?
One of the challenges of the drama was finding a band to play the music. It’s quite complicated because they had to be on screen, they had to be real musicians. They also had to be able to have enough time to be on the set six or seven hours a day. That was a logistical problem that the show had to overcome if it was to exist.

Early jazz as we know it goes back to the turn-of-the-century but jazz in Britain really made an impact in the early 30s when musicians like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong came here. The music that we know was being played then we only can hear through rather crackly technology of old records from the time. Obviously, if you had been in a room with that music the experience would’ve been completely different, the sound would’ve been so much richer. Adrian Johnston and I really felt that you had to have a visceral experience as though you were actually there.

Adrian has given me great score after great score and has been one of the great collaborators of my career. It’s a phenomenal contribution that he’s made to my work over the years. He wrote all the songs.

Initially I was going to write them with him – we wrote a song for Gideon’s Daughter for Emily Blunt that was nominated for an Emmy award – but I’m not a natural lyricist, I’m about as likely to be nominated for dancing in the ballet as I am for writing lyrics. So it was astonishing that I was suddenly an Emmy nominated lyricist!

With Dancing On The Edge Adrian suddenly burst forth like someone speaking in tongues and produced all these extraordinary songs. The songs are vivid, tuneful and yet not at all historically a complete lie. We are aware that we had to make the songs attractive to modern audiences.

There was a singer called Florence Mills who caused a sensation in the 20s and 30s in London. She had a show that ran for ages, royalty went there and anyone who was interested in show business. She performed so much that she dropped down dead at a young age. Jazz at this point was still a minority taste. It wasn’t until later when artists like Benny Goodman burst onto the scene that jazz became mainstream. There was a party for the Prince of Wales held by Lord Beaverbrook where Duke Ellington’s band played; the Prince of Wales ended up playing the drums with the band, which is an image that I have borrowed for the show and I have made it Prince George’s story point. But that does show how closely I was mirroring what was going on in real life at the time.

Jazz music was a very exciting new route, because it was much more vibrant than other types of music in that era, such as the Foxtrot. Rather than following a tradition of minstrel bands, the jazz band in the show follows a new route, and it’s mentioned by various characters throughout the show that they are not conforming to the expectation that they would be playing music whilst dressed as though they were from the jungle, with girls wearing a bunch of bananas.

Also the band that you are seeing on the screen is the same band that is playing the soundtrack.

The entire show was shot on location. How did you find all of these backdrops?
The big question was how does one create 1930s England on a budget that is not colossal. The way to get round the limitations of having a show that is not on an HBO size budget is to shoot on real locations and not try to build studio sets and spend a lot of time finding real locations, and using them in as an imaginative away as you can. What I wanted to echo was particularly the London hotels; hotels at this time were huge centres of entertainment, to attract diners. They had these enormously elaborate floorshows at hotels like the Savoy and the Cecil, which was on the Strand and was knocked down in the late 30s. It was at one time the biggest hotel in the world. The Imperial Hotel in the show is based on that. It was almost like a huge Titanic that fell on hard times in the 1930s and was located where the Shell building now stands.

We were lucky enough to find this beautiful ballroom in Birmingham, which had been left marooned surrounded by a dead hotel. So when we went to film there the temperature was absolutely freezing. Also in Birmingham we found this incredible foyer and by putting them together we created the huge luxury hotel. Public areas in the 30s were enormous. There was a place called the Holborn Tearooms that was gigantic. We think of the past as quaint and small and yet these buildings were huge.

We also depicted the Masons having their meetings in the basement. This continued until quite recently in fact – the Café Royal being one example. I discovered Masonic temples in the basement underneath when I was researching another project many years ago so I know this to be true.

Creating different worlds was important so we shot the magazine world in the east end, and the club we set in the beautiful old Wiltons Music Hall. But it’s not all London-centric. The show goes out to other areas of England to show the poverty at the time including a mining town where we shot several scenes in the Midlands. We also have a number of scenes with trains, which was all quite elaborate and we had to find a way of doing them within budget.

Although the show is not overtly political you deal with a number of issues that remain furiously relevant today – immigration, racism and class. Was that intentional?

In the 1930s there was a ferocious immigration policy. There were incredibly strong rules after the First World War. You had to be able to prove that you had found work every week. There were also cases of people being followed in the street and questioned to find out if they were telling the truth. So it was very difficult for black musicians coming from abroad. What makes this very interesting to the modern audiences is that in some ways it’s not that different to current immigration policies in some respects.

I think that what ties us most significantly with that period is that in the same way as now, nobody then knew what was going to happen next economically. And of course many people were unaware of the catastrophe that was coming, namely the Second World War.

Technology at that time was bursting. The wireless as they called it was being mass-marketed and the ‘talkies’ had just arrived. At this point there was an explosion with celebrity obsession. In fact, celebrity was almost more popular in the 1930s than it is now. When Gary Cooper came to London at the end of the 30s during the time of the Munich crisis there were streets lined with people from miles. I can’t think of another celebrity that would be able to create such a huge audience and bring London to a standstill today.

Unlike many other historical dramas what I look to do is to bring the audience inside the drama itself. Rather than view the drama historically as they’re looking into a fishbowl, I prefer people to feel that they are living the moment. What I’m hoping with the character of Louis is that the audience becomes him in many ways. I look for them to ask the same questions that he is asking, “Can I trust these people? Do I like this girl?”

Ultimately, racism never goes away. It’s continuously a terrible problem. As we see a downturn in economies across Europe we sadly at the same time see a rise in racist activity. What we can take from the show is proof that not everybody at that period was racist. If that were the case the band would have ultimately been completely shut out.

At this point in history, where we are today, it’s important to recognise that good must win out. So in that sense, the story of Dancing On The Edge is very relevant.

What do you hope audiences will take away with them?
When I set out to do any drama, particularly on the mass medium like television, what I’m trying to do is first of all on the most banal level tell a good story. I like to think of myself as a storyteller. This story in particular has quite a powerful forward momentum. Regardless of the period, it’s interesting in that it’s about people discovering something new, friendships being forged and those characters then being forced to take the moral choice – are they going to back Louis or turn against him? That’s a situation that people can find themselves in in any era.

But what I’m trying to do with the show is give people an exciting engaging and visceral experience. There are no villains in this piece even though it seems that there might be. Every character is made up of darkness and lightness. Without giving anything away, some of the characters that one may like at the beginning turn out to be darker and those who you may feel to be arrogant may turn out to be quite brave. The great thing about developing the story over six hours is that you can go into the complexities of your characters and show how complicated people are in real life. Ultimately, I want the audience to be haunted by the experience and for it to stay with them. It may be from this experience that they are then encouraged to find out more about this period. I’m trying to create an indelible story, which is a difficult thing to do in television with such fantastic competition.



The Miniaturist Interviews: Romola Garai




Romola Garai The Miniaturist

Romola Garai plays Marin Brandt in The Miniaturist, premiering soon on BBC-1, here she talks about what drew her to the drama and being in a costume drama where she pretty much only gets to wear one costume.

What attracted you to the role of Marin?
I’d read the book shortly after it came out and I thought it was a really surprising novel, really interesting and with very strong feminist themes in it, so I was very excited about it. Time passed and then an email popped into my inbox with the subject, The Miniaturist. I thought it was fantastic they were making it and I was really excited to read the script.

It’s a very genre-bending novel; it appears to be like a costume drama we have seen before, but very quickly we realise that it’s not that. It’s about a woman coming into her own in a society that’s very patriarchal, it’s about a love affair, it’s about discrimination, and it’s about people trying to survive in an incredibly controlled state. It’s a thriller and it’s also a story about political and emotional awakening.

Marin is a particularly interesting character, I think she has one of the best arcs. When I first read the book, she was the character that stayed with me, and when I read the scripts I immediately remembered everything about her. She’s told in beautiful detail in the novel, which John has retained in the script. Marin is just a great character to play, it was a real treat.

Tell us about Marin.
When you first meet her, because the story is told through Nella’s perspective, you meet a woman who seems very cold and intimidating. Then gradually you get this drip-feed of information about her; you see she’s been helping Johannes run the business and you learn that they were orphaned at a young age. She’s very intellectual, she’s very well read, and she’s not married, which is very unusual at the time.

One of the reasons I found her such a fascinating character is that she’s full of secrets and she’s layered; very conflicted and has great faith, but also passions. The house they live in is essentially a tinder box of secrets that Marin has been sitting on to try and stop the secrets exploding out. However although it seems she is trying to keep a lid on it I think she believes that they could subtly break all the rules and be free within the house at least, if only her brother stopped acting so recklessly.

Hopefully audiences will question what is driving her hostility towards Nella. Marin needs Nella a lot to maintain the appearance of being a normal household but it’s also very important that Nella is afraid of her so that she doesn’t try digging and discovering the secrets that they are all trying to keep – because if anyone finds out then their futures are ruined.

What was it like doing the scenes between Marin and Nella?
I loved working with Anya, she’s an incredibly accomplished actress. She’s got a difficult job in this, because Nella has to be very innocent at the beginning of the story, which is always difficult for an actor to play, and also more innocent that a woman of that age would be now. She’s constantly making discoveries, she doesn’t have the information that the rest of us do so she’s always learning new things, and she’s done that with real beauty and subtlety. I really enjoyed doing all our scenes together.

Anya Taylor Joy The Miniaturist

Anya Taylor Joy plays Nella.

Tell us about Marin’s costume.
Marin only had one costume until a very late stage of the story. Her costume is typical of the puritan values of the period which rejected anything that smacked of luxury or louche values. They also didn’t wear make-up in this period at all, certainly not women of this class and station, and the hair was very simple and scraped back. Her head would have been covered at all times, so I had a black cap that I wore, but to be honest when I wore it I couldn’t really hear what anyone was saying and also talked incredibly loudly because I couldn’t hear myself, so essentially I was shouting at the other actors!

What makes The Miniaturist stand out from other period dramas?
I’ve done lots of historical pieces but there’s something very unusual about this. When you do contemporary novels set in the past the writers are able to do a lot more, and tackle complex themes which writers writing at the time weren’t able to do. More than that, it’s interesting in that it explores a number of different genres. It has elements of a thriller and then it becomes a family drama and then it becomes a polemic about what happens in societies that are so controlling.

I hope people will sit down to watch the show because it’s a pretty costume drama and will be surprised that it is actually rebellious and constantly bringing up important issues – and that they’ll be so engaged they won’t be able to look away.

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Trust Me Interviews: Sharon Small




Trust Me Sharon Small

Interview with Sharon Small, who plays Dr. Brigitte McAdams in new three part psychological thriller Trust Me which airs this August on BBC One.

What attracted you to this project?
I liked the character and the premise of the piece – I don’t think we’ve seen this before. And everyone is like an armchair detective, everyone is an armchair actor or doctor, so I thought that people would get off on that and think, gosh what would I do in that circumstance? The audience are the people who are privy to the truth and not us. With my character, Brigitte, I like her neediness, her sassiness – she’s fun and quick-fire talking – and quite honestly I rather fancied myself as a doctor [laughs].

How would you describe your character?
Brigitte is a good person; she’s sassy and is a really good doctor. She has got some issues, but she is trying her best to run this ward and with great intentions, which I think a lot of NHS doctors are.

How did you prepare for the role?
I grew my hair so that I could tie it up – normally I have short hair. We had a fantastic medical training day with Dan and got to do airways and cannulas and stitching and things like that, I loved that. The most important thing for me was to go around the actual A&E department (or ED department as I now know it’s called) in Edinburgh. We met this fantastic doctor – just watching him and really getting to observe what goes on in a ward, the dynamic, what people do and noticing that people are always looking at folders, everyone’s always collaborating and talking to each other. Everyone is always moving around, a lot more than you think and not that quickly. It’s less dramatic than you think.

Is your character challenging to play?
She was. Similarly in something that Jodie mentioned, I had quite a lot of medical jargon to say quite quickly, but I had less of the procedural stuff to do in terms of operational things. As the character is more and more revealed I had to make sure that I took care of how that happened, and that it was subtly done.

What makes a hospital a good arena for a drama?
It’s an ever-changing landscape, a hospital. Every new sort of event that you’re presented with means that you’re having to make life-saving decisions. People’s lives really are at stake, and honestly, my little taste of pretending that I was an ED doctor made me feel quite powerful. If I could fix people so that they survived, that would be an amazing ability.

What are the biggest challenges that you have faced so far during filming?
Saying the medical words Metronidazole – Met-ron-ida-zole, Metron-i-dazole – and trying to make scrubs look even remotely interesting, I don’t rock scrubs like Jodie does, I’m way too curvy for that!

What do you hope audiences will take away from this drama?
I hope that they’ll find themselves in that dilemma of wanting Cath/Ally to succeed, because she’s a good person and she ironically is brilliant at the job. I’m hoping that they’ll see the dilemma that she has, and as you want her to keep succeeding, it means she’s going to keep compromising people as she goes, as well as herself.

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Trust Me Interviews: Jodie Whittaker




Trust Me

Jodie Whittaker plays Cath in three part psychological thriller Trust Me which airs on BBC One this August.

What appealed to you about this project?
I was sent the script for the first episode and it fascinated me because it went in a completely different direction to how I thought it was going to. Particularly at the beginning when she’s suspended for whistleblowing and loses her job. It could have gone so many ways, and the fact that she takes on this new identity isn’t the way that I thought it would go. I love the fact that her choices are quite morally dubious – they certainly aren’t black and white. She makes decisions that are quite challenging to justify, even though we know her reasons. I’ve never acted in anything medical before, so it felt completely new.

How does Cath’s lie come about?
Cath starts off by having a conversation with her best friend, Ally, who is a middle grade doctor in A&E and is giving it all up to emigrate to New Zealand. Ally is packing up the life that Cath would have loved to have had, leaving it all behind to go and do something completely different. Suddenly there is an opportunity for her to take on the identity of her friend and in that panic, not necessarily the clearest thinking moment in her life, she does it. Once you set off on a path of lies it’s very difficult to undo it without bringing everything crashing down.

Did you receive any training on medical procedures?
Yes! The writer, Dan, who is also medical consultant and a doctor outside of TV production, showed us a load of stuff that he used when he was training people. He brought in the CPR dummy and showed us how to do a cannula and he, very bravely, let me put a cannula in his vein. I did it right, thank God! Also, YouTube is amazing. The genius of the internet is that you can basically sit at home and Google medical procedures, and TV shows such as 24 hours in A&E, which I watched hours of.

How else did you prepare for the role?
With regards to the technical stuff, we had an on-set consultant so that there was always someone to help when we had to do the procedures. The best thing for me was that my character was also out of her depth and didn’t always know what she was doing, so it kind of covered my own personal fumbles. I’m not someone who likes to over prepare for dialogue scenes, because I think that makes me not listen to what the other person is saying as I’ve already decided how I’m going to do it. It immediately makes it interesting and new and you can’t plan for that, which is great. You can’t ‘wing’ the medical stuff so I had to do my research for that. One of my friends is a Sister in A&E and I sent her a lot of messages asking ‘how do you pronounce this?’ and ‘what does that mean?’, so basically she was my personal medical coach even though she works full time!

Is it challenging playing someone who leads a double life?
Yes, but no more challenging that playing someone who has had something happen to them that I haven’t personally experienced. What’s hard is trying to gauge how good a liar she is, or how in a panic she is. You’ve got to be careful, because you can’t make the other actors seem stupid. These are intelligent, fully formed characters that you’re working with, so it was a fine line of being able to deceive and it not being something that comes easily to her. However, it can’t be that it makes everyone around her feel a bit like an idiot for not working it out. That was tricky, but the director is there to help guide you through it.

Did the uniform help to get you into character?
Yes. It feels odd when you put it on. I did five weeks of studio filming, back to back – all the medical stuff was contained so everything started to become a bit like second nature. The first few times I had to put on an apron, the ‘take’ ended up being about 15 minutes long. Then I worked out that you shouldn’t put the gloves on before the apron! There was lots of daft stuff like that, but you then get into a rhythm. It’s good because it makes you immediately feel like you look the part and then all I had to do was make sure that I knew the lines!

What were some of the challenges that you faced during filming?
I’m not very good with learning dialogue when there are lots of medical terms! I enjoy the adrenaline of being on set because I’m quite good at choreography, I respond well to being taught something physically. That’s why I was terrible at school, because they talk you through things rather than physically show you. I enjoyed doing the different types of surgery as it was fascinating, it’s nerve-wracking but you realise that you can do it. Also, the team who created the props put in so much hard work to make sure we didn’t mess up our bits. I struggled with having massive speeches that involved these medical words. I don’t have a brain for that!

Did you enjoy working in Scotland?
I absolutely loved Glasgow! The crew were phenomenal and the city is wonderful. I could move my family up there and we had a great time as there were loads of brilliant restaurants and everyone was lovely. It was brilliant and I would snap up another job there very quickly, although it does get very dark and cold over winter!

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