Last Tango In Halifax

You’d be forgiven for being very confused by the title of this BBC import, which made its American debut tonight on PBS. Maybe you thought this would be a show about dancing in Canada. As interesting as that sounds, Last Tango In Halifax is not that. The Halifax in question isn’t in Nova Scotia. It’s somewhere in the United Kingdom; you’d be forgiven for thinking Scotland, but it’s actually an town in West Yorkshire (wherever that is). And there isn’t tango, either. Not the Argentinian kind. The tangoing is strictly metaphorical and between older folks, the 70-plus variety. 

There will be some people who will be very enthusiastic about this show, which delves into a particularly British love story between two elderly people who were last romantically attached to each other when they were just 15 years old. It has the restrained affection of British family dramas, coupled with the endearing sunset love affair of the two sweethearts, Alan and Celia, played by Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid.

Alan and Celia, together, are delightful old people, engaged in the amusing, adorable process of falling in love with each other while also trying to suss out newfangled inventions of the modern world like frappuccinos and Facebook. Around them, the story has the verve and banter of a screwball comedy, a boundless joy and a love for life.

Celia is the widow of a man who didn’t love her well enough and who died after a long illness. She’s wealthy and settled, but frustrated with her daughter, an uptight upper-class snob with marital troubles of her own. Alan, meanwhile, is a widower who lives on a farm with his daughter and grandson. They come from very different social classes and have already lived most of their lives, so their reunion, after 60 years, is tentative but reckless—at that age, they both seem to think, what do you possibly have to lose? In each other they find a source of optimism and comfort. Jacobi and Reid both handle aging with grace—their characters are equally able to be wise and mature as they are to be quickly befuddled with what we call a “senior moment.” In addition to moving between both extremes with aplomb, neither actor shies away from demonstrating the tragedy or the comedy that can arise in old age, which makes the show both unexpectedly funny and unexpectedly moving. In the first episode, Alan’s car is stolen, and his confusion at discovering it, his delayed ability to process it—and then Celia’s ability to strong-arm her way into querulously demanding justice, concluding in the aforementioned car chase—is just one of the ways in which the show mixes the tragic with the comic.

The result is that Last Tango In Halifax is a sort of confusing mishmash at times, a show that ties together several different tones in just a few hours. The fact that it manages to switch between nighttime soap, screwball comedy, sentiment on aging, and family drama so well is an accomplishment, but its inconsistency isn’t going to work for everyone. The stories about Alan and Celia’s respective families clashing as the two get closer aren’t as strong, and no one else on the show is quite as compelling as the two leads. There are some frustrating red herrings in the stories of Alan’s daughter’s husband’s brother’s suspicions (really) and Celia’s daughter’s secret lesbian lover’s indiscretions (again, really). But if you fall for Alan and Celia, the rest of the show comes easy.

Last Tango In Halifax was quite successful in Britain, and a second season is already in the works, but its brand of restrained romance might be better suited to audiences across the pond. Still, you might like it, if you can find time to watch something else on Sunday nights. It has a sweetness to it that could warm the cockles of even cold American hearts.

Stray observations:

  • Derek Jacobi is wonderful in this and in everything.
  • Creator Sally Wainwright based the story on her mother’s own late-in-life marriage, which is sweet.
  • But seriously: Most confusing title ever.
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