Last Tango in Halifax review – jealousy, resentment, class and love, all beautifully written and observed

Sally Wainwright’s drama about family and relationships is so good it makes you think about your own

Good news: as Homeland comes to an end, Last Tango in Halifax (BBC1, Sunday) gets going again, series three. Not that they’ve anything in common; they’re about as far away in spirit as Yorkshire and Islamabad are, spiritually and physically. But they are both top television for a Sunday evening.

Alan (Derek Jacobi) tells Celia (Anne Reid) an excellent joke on their Valentine’s dinner out. I hope I’m telling jokes like that at that age. I hope I’m – we’re – like that at his age. You can see the other couples in the ghastly Valentine’s-night restaurant situation are thinking they hope they’ll be like that, too – not old stereotypes, but three-dimensional, fantastic, funny people. Still alive. That’s one of the brilliant things about Sally Wainwright’s drama.

Also brilliant are the performances, not just of Jacobi and Reid, but Nicola Walker and Sarah Lancashire as Gillian and Caroline, respectively their respective daughters. And the language, what they say and do; Last Tango in Halifax is so beautifully written and observed. I like Gillian’s little flick of two fingers down the phone to Caroline; it says more about (step)sisters and families, and jealousy and resentment and class, plus a bit of love, too, than an entire two-hour Christmas special of Downton bloody Abbey. And it’s funny. I like it when Caroline, mid sofa-snog (with chocolates) with girlfriend Katie, answers Jeremy Paxman’s University Challenge question on the telly about quantum physics. “4π,” she says. And then again “4π” as the poor students dither. And a third time, louder, almost angry: “It’s 4π!”

My own girlfriend gets so cross when I repeat an answer, with increased volume, to Jeremy. “You said,” she says. Sorry to bring her into it, I know it makes some of you – not to mention her – cross. But that’s another thing about LTiH, it’s drama about family and relationships that makes you think about yours.

Then Caroline proposes, delightfully, hesitatingly, but not in an unconfident way and utterly believably: “Should … shall … why don’t we get married?” Ahhh. Hey, don’t get ideas, love, if you’re reading (if only). We don’t even do University Challenge chocolates and making-out … stop it, enough already! Anyway, Katie, who doesn’t know so many of the answers, has turned Paxman off in a remote-control way.

Gillian’s got a Valentine’s date, too, with Gary, who’s handsome and funny and charming … and her brother. A half-brother she never knew about until now. Oh! Because this isn’t just about making you go “Ahhh”; it’s about oh and OMG and ouch as well, just like the real world. Alan, it seems, is not quite the lovely old fella everyone, including his own daughter, thought he was. And if Alan cheated on wife number one, what’s to say he’s not going to cheat on number two, too? Should Celia even know though, that’s the big question. One of the big questions. One thing I do know: I’m thoroughly involved, I care.

And so to Homeland (Channel 4, Sunday), and presumably the big showdown somewhere in the mountains of Pakistan, the tribal regions up north, Mathison plus Quinn v sexy eyes Haqqani …

Oh, we’re back Stateside, preparing for the funeral of Carrie’s father. There are bangs, but emotional ones this time, not RPGs and bombs. Boom, here’s Carrie bonding with her daughter for the first time, a bond brought on by the change in her own daughter status. And boom, here’s Carrie’s mum, showing up after 15 years, and with a hell of a lot to answer for. Boom, a snog with Quinn (ill-advised, I think, from both snoggers’ points of view, given who they’re snogging and their track records, but also from the writers’ – simply unnecessary). And boom, a load of unknown family history, released by death, and a brand new half-brother, charming and handsome, whom she never knew about until now … What the hell is this, Last Tango in Langley? Maybe they’re not so different after all.

It’s almost like they suddenly remembered, right at the end, that Homeland is supposed to be about characters and relationships, as well as about adrenaline, and that they rushed all that stuff in at the end, having pretty much ignored it throughout.

And it can’t help but feel like a big disappointment, because of what’s come before, what it feels like it’s been building towards. And because, with a fifth series confirmed, what’s coming next. Unfinished business, and the anticlimax of renewal in other words, the downside of success. Deserved success, it has to be said – it has been a fabulous series, the best since the first.


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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