Sunday, March 2, 2014

Sunday Review: Last Tango in Halifax (TV serial)

By Morris Dean

The BBC's serial Last Tango in Halifax must have caught me in a stupor the first time I started to watch it, for I formed the superficial impression of a sappy love story involving a man and a woman even older than I am (Alan and Celia, played by Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid). I told my wife to go ahead and watch it, but I would skip.
    However, a few weeks later I discovered that our local library system had the program in a 2-DVD set. That offered an easy way to give Last Tango a second chance, so I checked it out. And I was sharp enough this time to catch on quickly that there were several intriguing complications that more than compensated for whatever sappiness there might be.
    The main ones involve Alan's relationship with his daughter (Gillian, played by Nicola Walker) and Celia's relationship with hers (Caroline, played by Sarah Lancashire). Gillian gets along very well with her father, but she has hidden from her son the truth that her late husband his father wasn't killed in an accident but committed suicide, and her brother-in-law, Robbie, who had dated Gillian before she married his brother, blames her for his brother's death and seems to be trying to alienate Gillian's son's affections from her.
    Caroline, on the other hand, finds her mother exasperating – a reaction that this viewer came to share on several occasions, although it all turns out okay in the end, as they say. But Caroline is involved in a messy situation with her wayward husband (John, played by Tony Gardner), who has tired of the woman he has been staying with and begs Caroline to be let back into their nice house. Caroline is willing to make accommodations, for the sake of their two teenage sons, but a romantic relationship is budding between her and a female colleague at work (Kate, played by Nina Sosanya)....

Left to right, the characters Caroline, Celia, Alan, & Gillian
    And the relationship just between Alan and Celia has a delicious complication of its own. A note from one to the other when they were teenagers had gone astray, leading to their losing contact until now and raising some touchy what-ifs regarding their daughters. And Alan's more liberal leanings clash with Celia's more conservative ones....

Characters John & Kate
Some sexual complications embracing randy daughter Gillian and Caroline's randy husband John afford some comic relief and provocation, but your head may be swimming already. Never mind. All of this is managed as skillfully as the best screenwriters today can be relied on to do it.
    The screenwriter in this case is Sally Wainwright, who was inspired to write the story by the happiness of her own mother's second marriage late in life. In fact, the production is dedicated to the memory of the man her mother married, on whom the Derek Jacobi character (Alan) was based. We aren't told to what extent particular details of their marriage might have been used in Last Tango, but I don't think it would have been possible for the two "childhood sweethearts" to have been re-united as they are in the serial by their grandchildren's having shown each of them how to create a Facebook page, and by Alan's curiously discovering Celia's page and feeling impelled to try to find out why she never contacted him after she failed to meet him at the bridge for their date all those 60 years ago....
    Oh, it's a lovely story, besides a gem of the writing art. And you needn't take my word for it. Here's this from the series' Wikipedia entry:

Ahead of the series' American premiere, a critic for the Los Angeles Times described it as "the best new show of the fall." Last Tango in Halifax accrued four nominations for the 2013 British Academy Television Awards and won the British Academy Television Award for Best Drama Series.
    Though the 2-DVD set presents the series as six episodes, it aired over two seasons (2012 & 2013) of six episodes each. They are described in the Internet Movie Database's entry for Last Tango in Halifax.
Copyright © 2014 by Morris Dean

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  1. When two families unknown to one another for 60 years are brought together through Facebook, their interactions spark life-changing developments.

  2. What, no shot outs or car chases? How can you call this a movie?[smile]

    1. Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. However (ironically), they do manage to work in a chase of sorts....Very skilled writer(s) and deft staff all around. First-rate dramatic entertainment, with real issues and real human beings.

    2. The writing may have been great, etc., but I found the plot to be a special variety of soap opera: the kind that tailiors its appeal to the interests of persons who take a special interest in the emotional entanglements of others who get involved in creating the same frustrating social entanglements themselves. Bill, son of a pig-farmer and graduate of TUHS.

    3. Bill, I know a graduate of TUHS whose father was a pig farmer. I wonder whether his father and yours are or were acquainted....
          Your use of the term "soap opera" apparently to derogate Last Tango in Halifax prompted me to double-check just what the definition or understanding of the term is. Here's how Wikipedia defined it: "A soap opera, or simply a soap, is a serial drama, on television or radio, that features related story lines dealing with the lives of multiple characters. The stories in these series typically focus heavily on emotional relationships to the point of melodrama. The name soap opera stems from the fact that many of the sponsors and producers of the original dramatic serials' broadcast on radio were soap manufacturers."
          Well, the "serial drama, on television or radio, that features related story lines dealing with the lives of multiple characters" part certainly fits, but I don't think that Last Tango "focus[es] heavily on emotional relationships to the point of melodrama." The focus is more typical of a good feature film.
          And, of course, commercials for other products have long since outpaced soap. Of course, looking at the series on DVD as we did, there weren't any commercials to watch.

    4. Bill, on further reflection, I realized that the label "soap opera" doesn't suit Last Tango in Halifax, for ithe artful way it weaves togrther "related story lines dealing with the lives of multiple characters" so tightly serves the single, central line having to do with Alan & Celia that the result has the feel of a long movie much more than of an episodic serial.

    5. Finally, Bill, would you please explain what you mean by "persons who take a special interest in the emotional entanglements of others who get involved in creating the same frustrating social entanglements themselves"? Thanks in advance.