Last Tango in Halifax – TV review

After the pounding melodrama of Ripper Street and Peaky Blinders, a drama that lets its dialogue breathe is an absolute joy

There's a scene early in the new series of Last Tango in Halifax (BBC1) which beautifully captures its tone. At the end of the first run, Alan (Derek Jacobi) had a heart attack, having fallen out with his new lover, Celia (Anne Reid). Though their relationship was at its centre, this was a drama concerned with all aspects of human interaction, so the messily interconnected personal lives of their adult children were part of it, too. These goings-on were complex enough to warrant more explanation than the short recap at the start of the episode could offer, so Celia's feckless son-in-law John is given the expository lines. He reels off who slept with who, and who is mad at who, and the current state of the affairs they're all having, including his own. There's a beat. "God, it really is all about you, isn't it," his estranged wife Caroline says, drily.

Similar moments occur throughout the episode. Whenever the action comes perilously close to melodrama, any tension is severed with a "blimey" or a raised eyebrow. Alan's daughter Gillian admits to Caroline that she had a drunken one-night-stand with John; Caroline has left John for her colleague Kate, anyway, so she doesn't mind too much. At least, she doesn't in the moment – the episode allows her to work out her feelings slowly so she is surprised, then baffled, then angry, and finally, simply, a little bit put out. The splashy fireworks never come; the closest we get is a muttered exchange of mildly unpleasant words that neither party actually hears.

In many ways, Last Tango is better than it should be. It's a relatively slight drama, in terms of plot at least, despite the soapy-sounding affairs that bind it together. Not a great deal happens. Alan and Celia elope to the register office without telling their children. There's some mopping up to do after last series' betrayals. Someone announces that they've "penned a ewe and made a lasagne", in the same breath. If it were half an hour long and broadcast three times a week, it could be Emmerdale.

Except it isn't. Much of Last Tango is built on conversation; most scenes involve two or three characters talking at length about what is happening in their lives. Occasionally, it can feel as if mainstream television drama has given up on letting dialogue breathe. I enjoy Ripper Street, another BBC1 show in the same time-slot, but its pace can be giddying: characters explain what's happening, quickly, then it's onto the next. Here, the slow pace stands out. These characters talk, for ages. Close your eyes and it could easily work as a radio play.

Yet, it's the gorgeous panoramic shots of Yorkshire, which is not called God's own country for nothing, that transfix. And as much as the script deserves credit for being elegant and restrained, the performances are wonderful to watch and absorb. Jacobi and Reid provide a steady, steely backbone, but it's Sarah Lancashire as the uptight Caroline and Nicola Walker as the increasingly lost Gillian who really shine. Their faces are often framed in close-up, and both have perfected a powerful, understated delivery. Lines such as, "I was pissed, it was my birthday, I felt sorry for him for being such a twat," don't sparkle on the page, but Walker is honest and plain, and her rawness wrongfooted me.

Like many dedicated TV fans, I watch a lot of US dramas, and clearly commissioners do too – that's why we have a show like BBC2's Peaky Blinders, which wore its grand ambitions of HBO-style epic-ness awkwardly. Last Tango is refreshing because it is not attempting to replicate that format at all. It simply is what it is: a very British, very northern hour of television. Of course, it is a stereotype of northerners to suggest that we are all down to earth and no-nonsense, but having lived roughly half my life in the north and half in the south, I have always found it to be broadly true. Such is Last Tango's appeal. It is kind, and it is warm, but it is also blunt. There's no faff. And it's lovely.

I had a minor complaint: the teaser for next week shows Kate insisting to Caroline that she wants a baby, and my heart sank a little. It's the biggest cliche of the still-rare lesbian storyline on TV, and it's a shame that a show which has handled their relationship deftly so far is falling back on that. Still, that's a minor quibble. We need more dramas as quietly bewitching as this.

• This article was amended on 21 November 2013. An earlier version referred to "registry office" where it should have said "register office".


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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