Did you ever give up on a TV show because you finally realized you just didn’t like spending time with the characters? Then tune into PBS for the most human—and humane—series to grace the tube in quite a while: the BBC import, “Last Tango in Halifax” (check those local listings).
It’s not quite like anything else I’ve ever seen. You’re sure the characters will be acting a certain way, but instead, they’ll surprise you by doing a 180. When you hear the basic premise of the show, you may gag and think it’s all cutesy-poo. But you couldn’t be more wrong. It’s about some interesting and sometimes complicated people with particularly messy lives, though soap opera it isn’t. So without further ado (though with a program note for the Amurricans reading this: the “Halifax” we’re talking about is in West Yorkshire, not Canada):
Alan (Derek Jacobi) and Celia (Anne Reid), both widowed and in their late 70’s, were teenaged sweethearts who lost touch when her family moved to Sheffield and her friend failed to deliver a crucial explanatory note to Alan. However, when Celia’s brainy grandson sets her up on Facebook, she links up with Alan once more, and the two arrange to meet in person. Their afternoon together has to be seen to be believed, and by the end of Episode 1, they’re engaged, much to the dismay of their respective adult daughters. But all this is mere prelude.
Alan’s daughter, Gillian (Nicola Walker) is a widow with a teenaged son. She runs a farm, but to make ends meet, works part-time at a local supermarket. She’s having an affair with Paul, a co-worker not much older than her son, who seems to specialize in kissing and telling. Then there’s Celia’s daughter, Caroline (Sarah Lancashire), the head teacher at a rather prestigious school (Americans, think high school principal or prep school dean), who’s married with two teenaged sons. Her husband, who previously left her for another woman, now wants to return—he’s discovered his inamorata is a drunk. But there’s a slight wrinkle: while they were separated, Caroline started some spooning of her own with Kate, a young teacher at her school. I told you it wasn’t simple.
The writing on this show is superb. Sally Wainright, who created “Last Tango in Halifax” and wrote all six episodes now airing on PBS, does a heroic job of avoiding all clichés. Alan and Celia are neither the old folks from “Cocoon” pining for rejuvenation, nor any variety of old codger, lovable, irascible or otherwise, their joint purchase of a Lexus convertible notwithstanding. Charming? Absolutely. But always realistic, sometimes to a fault. Both have revealed the problems and dissatisfactions in their respective marriages: Celia’s husband constantly cheated on her, and Alan, while perhaps content during the intervening years, doesn’t really seemed to have loved his wife. You think “It’s so wonderful they’ve found each other again,” but cracks in the plaster are beginning to appear. This past week saw their political differences come to the fore (he’s an unabashed Labourite, she’s a Conservative though she “didn’t mind Tony Blair”). More to come, I’m sure.
The four leads are wonderful. I’ve been a fan of Derek Jacobi since “I Claudius,” and his Alan is such fun to watch. So far his best moment was a silent one—his awestruck, head-over-heels gaze at Celia over the breakfast table, the morning after. It’s hard to believe that Anne Reid is the same actress who played Mrs. Thackeray, the cook in the “Upstairs, Downstairs” sequel—talk about range. Her “TMI” moment with Caroline when she won’t stop nattering about having sex with Alan was priceless. And Nicola Walker made me catch my breath when Gillian’s world seemed to be caving in, what with her son leaving home over her affair with Paul, only to learn that he’s moved in with her “right bastard” brother-in-law, a cop who thinks she murdered her late husband (false).
Top honors, though, have to go to Sarah Lancashire as Caroline. Hers is the most complex character, and the most pleasantly surprising. She’s got a look that kills: check out her expression when she comes home from work only to find her lay-about husband flaked out on the sofa, drunk, not having lifted a finger to start dinner. I howled at her decimation of Kate’s confidante and fellow teacher, who attempts to blackmail Caroline over that relationship (“Sod off you little prick! Don’t you know it’s 2012? The ladies have landed!”). And her heartbreaking confession to Kate about how growing up in the midst of her parents’ loveless relationship rendered her so ill-equipped to be a friend, let alone something more.
There are three more episodes of “Last Tango in Halifax” set to air on PBS in the coming weeks, and I intend to soak up every one. The good news is that there’s a Season Two now filming in the UK, which should come our way next year. Can’t wait.