Warning: contains major series 1-4 plot spoilers.
You know the feeling that some writers are plugged into different mains power to everyone else? They’re sucking juice from some obscure source that makes their work hover ten feet off the ground? Sally Wainwright’s one of those. Her dialogue is recognisable at twenty paces. Her characters are people you’d swap your best friends to know. She’s funnier than most stand-ups and spins yarns better than a sailor. Wainwright’s a rare dramatist, so obviously a master that there should be statues of her in cities around the UK. Particularly though, in Halifax.
It isn’t her home town – according to Google, that’s Huddersfield half an hour up the A629 – but it provides the bathetic punchline in the name of Wainwright’s gloriously warm BBC drama Last Tango In Halifax. It’s a self-deprecating gag of a title, a good-value joke slipped in before we’ve even stated.
Autobiographically inspired by her mother’s late-in-life love, Last Tango In Halifax began in 2012 as the story of a couple in their seventies who reunite after six decades. School friends Alan (Derek Jacobi) and Celia (Anne Reid) reconnect via Facebook accounts created for them by their respective grandsons, and arrange to meet. Events conspire to take them from a tea room in Skipton to the local police station over the course of a day in which they realise that they’re still every bit in love as they were in their teens.
By the end of episode one, Alan and Celia decide to get wed, tell their families as much (they have a daughter apiece from their first marriages, Sarah Lancashire’s masterful headteacher Caroline and Nicola Walker’s hot-headed farmer Gillian), and then the drama begins.
With four new episodes – the first since 2016 – starting on Sunday the 23rd of February here’s a quick recap of the key events so far…
Celia & Alan Butterworth
Alan and Celia fell in love as teenagers, but fate kept them apart until their seventies. When young Celia suddenly moved away with her parents, her best friend Eileen – also in love with Alan – neglected to pass on her goodbye letter and new address. Alan duly married Eileen, they had a daughter Gillian, and lived more or less contently until Eileen’s death. Celia too, married and had her own daughter Caroline (who, coincidentally shares Gillian’s birthday) but her marriage was an unhappy one to a serial adulterer she grew to hate.
Reconnecting in widowhood, the pair bought a flash red convertible, got married (twice) and eventually moved to a bungalow in Ripponden. When Celia’s daughter Caroline came out as a lesbian, they fell out over Celia’s bigotry (she’s a Daily Mail-reading, Thatcher-voting conservative, Alan’s more of a Guardian man), but made up after Alan suffered a heart attack and Celia softened her attitudes.
After a quickie wedding without their families, they held a second larger event, where Caroline walked her mother down the aisle. Celia reunited with her estranged sister Muriel while Alan’s brother Ted flew over from New Zealand.
In series three, Alan discovered that he had a son – Gary, played by Rupert Graves – the product of a brief affair in the 1960s. A wealthy businessman married to the daughter of a judge who sentenced Alan’s friend Harry when he accidentally wrecked his canal boat, Gary’s money was a sticking point. His arrival disrupted the families as he tried to ingratiate himself through lavish gifts and public declarations that made Alan uncomfortable because of his guilt over the affair.
2016’s two-part Christmas special saw the pair take part in an amateur dramatics production of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.
Caroline Mackenzie-Dawson, William, Lawrence, Kate and Flora
Private school headmistress and mother to two teenagers, William and Lawrence, Caroline started the series separated from her novelist husband John (Tony Gardner), who’d been having an affair with would-be writer and definitely-is alcoholic Judith (Ronni Ancona). A closeted lesbian who had tried to come out to her mother at university but was met with coldness and total denial, Caroline started a sexual relationship with school colleague Kate (Nina Sosanya) and then came out as gay. She and Kate had a baby using the help of Kate’s old university friend Greg (Marcus Garvey), and Caroline proposed. They married, but right afterwards Kate was knocked down by a car and rushed to hospital. Kate died but the baby – Flora Grace – survived, leaving Caroline a widow with a new-born.
Rejecting John’s nonsensical offer to get back together, Caroline raised Flora and gently said goodbye to Kate. In the two-part 2016 special, she learned that after she’d come out as gay, her swish private school didn’t want her to return to her headship and, bereaved as she was, she didn’t have the strength to fight it. She had a fling with a vivacious wine dealer, Olga (Lorraine Burroughs), who encouraged her to move back to the state sector, where she took the headship of a troubled state school. The move was also inspired by her off-screen meetings with Wyatt, the contrite 16-year-old boy who’d accidentally killed Kate while driving illegally.
With William away studying at Oxford and younger son Lawrence living with John and the now-sober and extremely successful children’s author Judith, Caroline and Flora moved house to a remote Huddersfield farm house in need of repair, where they now live.
As a wayward teenager, Gillian went out with local boy Robbie but soon left him for his (as she saw it) much more exciting and attractive older brother Eddie. She and Eddie got pregnant young with son Raff, left school, got married and bought a farm to run together, but Eddie was an alcoholic who suffered from mental illness and routinely physically and sexually abused Gillian throughout their marriage. Driven to the edge, she murdered Eddie by pushing his head into the log-splitter in their barn, and then lied to the police that it had been a suicide attempt. Robbie, now a police officer, suspected her of foul play but Gillian denied it, once almost confessing to her father, but on seeing his reaction, only telling him that she felt guilty for not calling an ambulance while Eddie was dying.
Getting over their initial frostiness with each other (and Gillian having a one-night-stand with Caroline’s ex John, who became obsessed with her for a while), Gillian and Caroline bonded like sisters and Gillian confessed to having deliberately killed Eddie.
Gillian got together with Robbie and married him, despite sleeping with two other men while they were engaged. Convinced that Eddie’s ghost was haunting the farm, she eventually confessed the murder to a now-retired Robbie, who didn’t turn her in to the police but left her and Raff, sold his house and used the money to permanently travel around Canada.
Raff, Ellie and Emily (Calamity) Jane
Gillian and Eddie’s son Raff (Josh Bolt) was a bright lad whose life threatened to derail when his girlfriend Ellie (Katherine Rose Morley) got pregnant while they were both still at school. With help from Gillian and his uncle/step-dad Robbie, Raff stayed on at school after baby Calamity was born and took his A-levels. When new uncle Gary came on the scene, Raff was tempted to chuck in his Leeds University plans and take up the offer of an accountancy apprenticeship and job, but ultimately decided to stick with education, to the delight of grandad Alan and mum Gillian. At his mum’s wedding, Ellie proposed to Raff and between series four and five, the pair married. They still live at Gillian’s farm with Calamity.
John and Judith
Disgruntled novelist John’s affair with alcoholic Judith turned into a long-term relationship. He left Caroline for her, moving in together when Judith became pregnant, before she suffered a miscarriage. When Judith’s children’s book series became a surprise hit, she bought them a flash house and John became even more disgruntled.
See the series five trailer below:
Last Tango In Halifax returns to BBC One on Sunday the 23rd of February at 9pm.