This review contains spoilers.
In the sham rivalry that persists between devotees of Jane Austen (comedy, marriage, assembly room balls and card games) and the Bronte sisters (tragedy, passion, storm-swept moors and ghosts), you’d peg dramatist Sally Wainwright for the Bronte camp. A Yorkshirewoman who wrote and directed a luminous biopic about the sisters in 2016, she’d be #TeamHaworth all day long.
Yet Last Tango In Halifax, Wainwright’s BBC One comedy-drama now returning after a four-year break, shows her to be nothing less than a modern-day Jane Austen. It’s not her plots, which are much more calamitous than Austen’s and never make a happy ending of marriage, but her minute attention to character and class.
The first episode of this new four-part series airs themes of money, snobbery and politics. It’s a fluent, entertaining hour that presents a snapshot of views and arguments happening in homes around Britain. Too little money or too much of it, adult children wanting handouts, actual children living in poverty, unhappy relationships, the spectre of dementia … all steered by the steady hand of a writer with a flowing, gentle touch and the sharpest ear for dialogue.
Series five finds the Butterworth-Greenwood-Mackenzie-Dawsons all more or less in the same place we left them. Alan (Derek Jacobi) and Celia (Anne Reid) have moved into her dream bungalow. Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) is raising five-year-old Flora alone in her remote country house. Gillian (Nicola Walker) is Robbie-less, but between Raff, Ellie, Calamity and the woodworm (the place is riddled with the little pillocks) Far Slack farm is full. And John and Judith (Tony Gardner and Ronni Ancona) are still locked in acrimonious co-existence in the hugely expensive house paid for by her J.K. Rowling-like children’s author success.
John and Judith aren’t the only ones with trouble in paradise. Everybody’s saying that Celia runs rings around Alan, and seven years on, it’s suggested that the pair’s great romance might have become a source of regret for him. Why else would he have applied for a job at the local supermarket if not to get away from her?
Alan has his reasons (‘Is it something to do with Harry?’ Celia asks. It is something to do with Harry) and Derek Jacobi is the golden highlight of the episode. Alan’s instinctive kindness and instant tenderness towards runaway Harrison make him a much more attractive prospect than Celia, who, with her new kitchen and Edie from Last Of The Summer Wine newspaper floor-laying, loses sympathy by the scene.
Reid, Jacobi and the rest of this excellent cast are in their element, performing lengthy scenes that leave room to breathe around what’s said. Or what isn’t quite said but is nonetheless heard. Because even when these characters don’t finish their sentences, they’re clear as a bell.
We know, for instance, exactly why Celia hates the idea of Alan behind a supermarket checkout. She thinks it’s beneath him, and moreover, beneath her. Not that she’ll say it. Instead, Wainwright shows her on the phone to the artisan craftsman making her £20k kitchen, going in a matter of seconds from ‘hello’ to ‘my daughter’s a headmistress who had Michelle Obama speak at her school’ (note that she doesn’t lead with the lesbian marriage) while Anne Reid completes the picture with a neatening pat of her hair. It’s the little touches.
Wainwright truly is – as Charlotte Bronte once described Austen, though not entirely with the intention of flattery – a great painter of human character with “a miniature delicacy in the painting”. Wainwright’s miniature delicacy and the detailed, natural performances of Last Tango’s ensemble give us characters we know better than they know themselves.
This beautifully arranged story of three or four (intermarried) families in a country village is a cameo of the UK painted with the finest brush. This new instalment feels as though the series never went away. If there’s one complaint, it’s that four episodes just aren’t going to be enough.
Last Tango In Halifax continues next Sunday the 1st of March at 9pm on BBC One.