Last Tango in Halifax Is Romance Done Right

Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 13 2013 5:14 PM

Last Tango in Halifax Is Romance Done Right

Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid


A well-plotted romance is a thing of beauty. A couple meets in adversity, endures trials and danger, and comes through them having forged a deeper connection. Often there’s rumpy-pumpy.

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

There’s lots of romance on the American TV schedule, but we tend to surround it, as we surround a dog’s pills with red meat to make it easier to swallow, with murder investigations, medical emergencies, or juicy political scandals. For reasons of business (the need to eke out 22 episodes a year) or gender (the belief that men won’t watch love stories, but women will locate the relationship drama in the middle of a cop show), romance is the toy in TV’s bag of Cracker Jack. In shows like Scandal, The Good Wife, Grey’s Anatomy, Bones, and Nashville, all that business about presidents, lawyers, doctors, forensic anthropologists, and small-city mayors steals time from the really interesting bits about the characters’ love lives. (Homeland is the rare exception—for some reason, the producers keep interrupting the thriller we want to watch to remind us about a relationship we hate.)


The Brits, on the other hand, still make pure, unadulterated romances. And right now, in that odd Sunday-night-at 8, pre-Masterpiece slot, PBS is airing one of the best.

Last Tango in Halifax is the love story of Alan (Derek Jacobi) and Celia (Anne Reid), 70-somethings who reconnect 60 years after a missed connection. Both are now widowed, and both live with their families—Celia’s daughter Caroline is a high-powered school administrator, while Alan’s daughter Gillian is a struggling farmer—in Yorkshire. Within hours of their reunion, they announce plans to wed, sending their shocked relatives into a tizzy.

And that’s where things get really good. As great as Jacobi and Reid are, their romance is the least interesting part of the series. Far more fascinating are the messy, muddled lives of Alan and Celia’s daughters—both of them stuck in unhappy ruts when we meet them. The sudden upheaval of the wedding announcement, and all the misadventures that follow, shake them out of their fug and set them on new, more challenging, but, they hope, more rewarding paths.

For my money, the most interesting of those paths was the one that wends through a gay neighborhood. The story of married mom Caroline—played with breathtaking verve by Sarah Lancashire—and Kate (Nina Sosaya), a kind, besotted teacher at her school, has a rare ring of truth about it. In general, the series has a lovely down-to-earth sense of realism—cats wander through living rooms, big love scenes are interrupted by deeply unsexy telephone calls about parental undergarments. And this realism is seen in the characters themselves as well: Everyone is flawed, everyone has made mistakes, disappointed people, or lashed out at some point. And yet if they’re willing to put in the hard work, they can change and move toward happiness. It’s lovely—perhaps even inspirational.

The first episode of Last Tango in Halifax aired on PBS last Sunday, but fittingly for a show about second chances, you have another opportunity to catch up before the next five air. As with the lives of the show’s characters, it just gets better from here.


Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
Sept. 23 2014 12:43 PM Occupy Wall Street How can Hillary Clinton be both a limousine liberal and a Saul Alinsky radical?
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Head of Security Had a Legacy of Sabotage
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would A Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 2:31 PM 3 Simpsons Showrunners Reflect on New Fans and the “Classic Era” Myth
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 1:50 PM Oh, the Futility! Frogs Try to Catch Worms off of an iPhone Video.
  Health & Science
Sept. 23 2014 1:38 PM Why Is Fall Red in America but Yellow in Europe? A possible explanation, 35 million years in the making.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.