Anne Reid and Derek Jacobi
Two former childhood sweethearts, now in their 70s, find love again after they reconnect via e-mail in Last Tango in Halifax, a charming, funny and bittersweet six-part romantic drama premiering tonight on most PBS affiliates (check your local listings).
Alan Buttershaw (Derek Jacobi) and Celia Dawson (Anne Reid) were classmates in their teens, but they haven’t seen each other since 1953, when Celia broke Alan’s heart by standing him up for their first date. He knew that her family was moving away for business reasons, but when Celia left town without so much as an apology or even an explanation for missing their date, a crushed Alan surmised she had been completely indifferent to him. He eventually married another local girl and settled down to raise their daughter, Gillian. Now, many years later, he lives on a Yorkshire sheep farm with the middle-aged Gillian (Nicola Walker), a widow herself, and her teenage son, Raff (Josh Bolt).
Over the years, though, Alan never stopped thinking about Celia and wondering what might have been, and he finally screws up the courage to invite her to meet him for coffee. That meeting proves revelatory for both of them, as they discover the mutual truth about what has kept them apart all these years, as well as the fact that Alan’s feelings were not one-sided.
Their rekindled romance plays out against the backdrop of much drama in the lives of their children and grandchildren. In addition to her hard work on the sheep farm, Gillian also works in a local grocery store and has drifted into an affair with a very unsuitable younger man (Sacha Dhawan). Meanwhile, Robbie (Dean Anderson), her former brother-in-law who irrationally blames Gillian for her husband’s accidental death, is conducting a tug-of-war for Raff’s loyalties, trying to turn the boy against his mother.
On Celia’s side of the equation, her daughter, Caroline (Sarah Lancashire), reluctantly has decided to allow her errant husband, John (Tony Gardner), to return home after an extended affair with an alcoholic younger woman, forcing her end a tentative same-sex fling with a teacher (Nina Sosanya) at the school where Caroline is an administrator. Alas, news of that lesbian fling appears to be on the verge of blowing up, so the always testy Caroline is in an even fouler mood than usual.
Series creator Sally Wainwright (Scott and Bailey) reportedly got the idea for Last Tango in Halifax from the second marriage of her own mother. I doubt that some of the soapier elements in this story are actually drawn from real life, but Wainwright does an impressive job of shifting moods and tones from scene to scene while also drawing some deft sketches of characters that cross three generations.
Foremost, however, Last Tango in Halifax is Alan and Celia’s story, and Jacobi and Reid are magical. The former, of course, has been a PBS superstar in high-profile projects stretching back to the mid-‘70s miniseries I, Claudius; Reid is somewhat less well known on this side of the pond, but you may recognize her from her memorable work as the cook Mrs. Thackeray in the recent Masterpiece Classic reboot of Upstairs Downstairs. They never make a false step in their Tango, so it’s no surprise to hear that a second season of the show already is in production in the UK. Meanwhile, full episodes of Season One will be available for a limited time at the PBS Video Portal (www.pbs.com) after each week’s broadcast.
Nicola Walker, Josh Bolt and Sarah Lancashire