Though the acting of Sarah Lancashire and co. is still on fine form, has the time come for Last Tango to take its last tango?
If you’re a fan of drama and haven’t heard of Sally Wainwright, you must be living under a rock; or just avoiding terrestrial channels in favour of your streaming services. She’s penned some of the most successful shows of the last five years, including the BBC’s gritty police drama Happy Valley, and ITV’s fast-paced detective thriller Scott and Bailey. Her career began in soap writing, and blossomed into winning multiple BAFTAs. Last Tango in Halifax is perhaps the most personal of her writing, drawn from Wainwright’s one life, and the touching story of her mother’s second marriage.
To bring you up to speed, Last Tango tells the story of Alan (Derek Jacobi) and Celia (Anne Reid), childhood sweethearts who reunite in their seventies as widowed pensioners. Their beautiful story is complicated by the existence of their separate families; Celia’s daughter, Caroline (Sarah Lancashire), is a posh private school headteacher, while Alan’s daughter, Gillian (Nicola Walker), is gruff country farmer. As they are forced together into an unconventional family, the two daughters realise they have more similarities than they realise.
Due to Wainwright’s understandably heavy writing schedule, Last Tango returns for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fourth series, more accurately described as Christmas specials. The family spends Christmas together, and though the golden couple of Alan and Celia are happy, the enduring miseries of Caroline and Gillian reach breaking point. Moving through grief for her dead wife Kate, Caroline is shone a new light in the form of troublesome love interest Olga (Lorraine Burroughs), while Gillian’s youthful marriage to Robbie (Dean Andrews) hits the rocks, prompting her to make a shocking confession.
As always, Wainwright textures her characters in a way that would make other writers green with envy, and the stunning acting cast make magic with her scripts and direction. Alan, Celia, Gillian and Caroline are all realised with perfection, true to their best features and flaws. For example, Celia’s scathing “traditional” side constantly pulls the viewer away from her sweet old lady image. Though she whispers the word “lesbian” in front of Caroline’s toddler Flora, she later flippantly gives Olga the nod of approval, making both Caroline and the viewer realise her underlying desire for her daughter to be happy. The older couple take somewhat of a backseat to allow Caroline and Gillian take to the spotlight with their respective problems, and its the on-screen sistership that’s developed between Lancashire and Walker that’s the highlight of the specials. They’ve come a long way from the antagonistic, starkly different women that were forced together in Series 1.
The specials suffer somewhat from a weak plot, however. With the story of Alan and Celia’s reunion largely exhausted in the three series that have come before, they are pushed into a comic ameteur dramatics subplot, which does produce some humorous moments in the fact Alan, played by iconic theatre actor Jacobi, can’t remember his lines. The ordering of the storytelling is sometimes confusing due to flashback technique used to explore Caroline’s romance with Olga and her decision to leave her private school job. A huge milestone comes as Gillian confesses her darkest secret to husband Robbie, though it’s hard to sympathise with the subsequent crumbling of their marriage because it seemed unrealistic anyway. A complete mess, Gillian seems pretty unsaveable at this point.
Though it’s a joy to return to these characters, and the acting can’t be faulted, it seems that the story of Last Tango in Halifax is at a dead end. Though a full fourth series could have benefited from a large twist, such as the death of one of the lead couple, it’s not do-able in these two hour-long specials, which fall tonally flat. Perhaps it’s time to lay the successful show to bed. After all, finding the perfect ending makes for the best remembered TV anyway.
Last Tango in Halifax‘s two Christmas specials can be found on the BBC iPlayer. You can catch another Sally Wainwright-penned drama in To Walk Invisible, a biopic of the Bronte women, which airs on Boxing Day.