Gentle comedy dramas have a lot of plates to keep spinning, spanning as they do across three potential pitfalls. Add a fourth – dealing with an elderly couple with dignity, humour and realism, and it’s quite a challenge. It’s therefore a great testament to writer Sally Wainwright’s talents that Last Tango in Halifax became such a smash hit when it took its place within the BBC schedule in 2012.
We’re introduced to Alan Buttershaw (Derek Jacobi) and Celia Dawson (Anne Reid). Both have seen the end of their lifelong relationships, and yet neither seems prepared to either mourn the loss extensively or give up looking to continue their lives with companionship elsewhere.
Alan was married for 50 years to his wife Eileen. It was a kind enough marriage, but seemingly lacked the spark that marriages need. A partnership more of companionship than passion, Alan admits that the two were pals more than anything. A gentle man, Alan had no bad words to reflect upon their life together, which is in stark contrast to Celia. Her husband Ken was clearly not what she had planned and their relationship, while surviving all these years, was not one she is reflecting on fondly. ‘I looked after him,’ she bemoaned to her daughter, which was ‘…more than he would have done for me. I was an inconvenience for 50 years.’
All these years later, the pair have grandsons who have decided to interfere in the lonely lives of their now solo grandparents. The pair exchange messages on social media – ‘it’s all nowt’ they both claim, just pen pals and a trip down memory lane. However, Alan plucks up the courage to message Celia again to see if she would like to meet up for a cup of tea in Skipton. After initial doubts, Celia accepts and sets off from her home in Harrogate to meet up.
Inevitably, their first meeting doesn’t go to plan, a run of mishaps sees Alan’s car stolen while they are having tea and the pair go tearing around Yorkshire in pursuit in Celia’s car when they spot his car being driven at speed nearby. However, the adventure and the clarification as to why things never worked out between them decades earlier are enough to convince them that they now have the opportunity for a new life together.
Alan had actually asked her out once when they were at school together. When it came to the day of their assignation, Celia never showed up. He was aware that her family promptly moved to Sheffield, and the pair had not seen each other since. The note with new contact details that Celia had given him that day had never made it to him, so the path that could have been followed between them was never trodden.
As charming as Alan and Celia’s romance is, Last Tango in Halifax needs a strong supporting cast of characters to sustain it, and it has that in spades. Both of the seniors have adult daughters and teenage grandsons, and life has not been particularly kind to either.
Alan’s daughter Gillian (Nicola Walker) has been battling to raise her only son Raff (Josh Bolt) on her own for the last 10 years since the death of her husband on the farm that she now runs solo. She is inevitably headstrong and deeply protective of Raff, especially given rumours about how Raff’s father had died, with stories suggesting the accident that took his life was not as clear cut to some.
Celia’s daughter Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) has trodden a significantly different path. She too has a teenage son, two in fact, but her raising of them on her own has only recently been caused by her husband leaving for another woman. Caroline has a respected job at a local school, and while she is angry at her husband’s infidelity, she too has a skeleton in the closet having had an affair with a female work colleague.
Caroline’s wandering husband, John (Tony Gardner), is a regular member of the cast. Having established that the woman he left Caroline for, Judith (Ronni Ancona), has a serious and at times violent relationship with alcohol, he determines to return to Caroline, but with his eldest son William (Edward Ashley) finding the pair in his mother’s home spark out on booze, the relationship fails once again.
As the dramas of two unhappy and unfulfilled daughters and the challenges of their relationships with partners past and present, as well as with their sons, unfold, the storyline that underpins the series and keeps a lighter element to the show continues. Celia and Alan bounce from one impulsive decision to another as they make up for lost time with their new relationship. Their pairing is full of the angst and bravado that couples 50 years younger than them would inevitably entail, but it’s dealt with in a charming and uplifting manner.
Last Tango in Halifax was an unparalleled success for the BBC, both in the UK and overseas. The drama of the two daughters would be heavy going without the warmth of the two leads and so to get the mood and the acting talent spot on is a masterstroke. Jacobi is a triumph as the kind-hearted Alan. A far cry from his heavy-duty thespian efforts, this gentle Yorkshireman is a million miles away from the usual roles Jacobi has been seen in, so it was no surprise that it garnered a BAFTA nomination. It was a similar situation for Reid, known primarily to the British public as Jean in dinnerladies. She brings a spirit to the role of Celia that lights a fire under the mild mannered Alan, earning her own BAFTA nomination and making a glorious on-screen partnership.
The people behind Last Tango in Halifax went with the less is more approach to their offering. Although technically lasting for five series, there are only 24 episodes spanning the eight years of production. During that time, the lives, loves and losses of the characters are approached with warmth, humour, realism and integrity. It’s a combination that won over millions of viewers and quite rightly made Last Tango in Halifax a huge success for the BBC.
Review by Brian Slade:
Born and raised in Dorset, Brian Slade turned his back on a twenty-five-year career in IT in order to satisfy his writing passions. After success with magazine articles and smaller biographical pieces, he published his first full-length work, `Simon Cadell: The Authorised Biography'.
Brian is a devoted fan of the comedy stars of yesteryear, citing Eric Morecambe, Ken Dodd, Harpo Marx and Dudley Moore amongst his personal favourites. He was drawn to the story of Simon Cadell through not only `Hi-de-hi!' but also `Life Without George', a programme he identified with having grown up in the Thatcher era.
Published on November 16th, 2021. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.