Friday, 1 March 2013

Last Tango in Halifax

Celia: Isn’t it odd? Things you remember, and things you don’t.
Memories are one thing, past experiences and decisions quite another. Last Tango in Halifax is a show about two families that, sometimes with conflict, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes quite happily, come together when Celia (Anne Reid) and Alan (Derek Jacobi), both in their Seventies, fall in love and decide to get married. Both have been married before, and have daughters and grandchildren, and they used to know each other in their youth, but lost contact when Celia moved away. Their respective grandsons helped them to sign up to a popular social network, which is how they found each other again.
Last Tango in Halifax achieves something quite extraordinarily. We follow these characters meet for the first time, gain trust in each other, fall in love, and at the same time, as they decide that they want to spend their lives together and that they truly care for each other, we find out more about their past, since it takes honesty and confidence to share the more intimate experiences and thoughts. Celia was unhappily married to a man who cheated on her repeatedly and who became disabled in his later years – she took care of him, despite his infidelity, until his death. Alan was quite happily married, but finds out early into his relationship with Celia that his later wife once chose not to deliver a message from Celia – they were supposed to go out together when they were both young, but then Celia moved away a day early and without the message delivered, he thought she hadn’t cared enough about him to stay in contact.
This is a recurring theme in the show: the path not taken, the strange twists of fate that lead to a certain point in life, that determine how we exist and who we spend our lives with. The viewer watches Celia and Alan fall in love and enjoy a rare and beautiful happiness that neither of them expected to find so late in their lives. 
Their children become part of it as well, since both Caroline (Sarah Lancashire), Celia’s daughter, and Alan’s Gillian (Nicola Walker) are very involved in their parent’s lives. They are very different – Caroline has a high position in a private school, lives in an expensive, huge house, Gillian works in a supermarket and has an old farm that she runs on her own – but the things that eventually become more important than their differences (and their initial awkward confrontation when they first meet each other, due to bad days and first impressions) is what they have in common. They both care deeply about their mother and father, even though the relationship, especially in Caroline’s case, is fraught with difficulties. They both have teenage sons that they are practically raising on their own, since Gillian’s husband died and Caroline’s moved in with his girlfriend for a couple of months and is only now trying to sneak his way back into her life, now that dealing with Judith’s (Ronni Ancona) alcoholism has become too much of a strain. The idea of characters connecting isn’t just important with regards to falling in love, but there is also a brilliant sense of people finding companionship in unlikely places due to Alan and Celia’s serendipitous meeting, and characters making sense of themselves by sharing their stories (and secrets) with new acquaintances.

Celia: I know him better than I know myself, can you understand that?
Caroline: Sort of… almost… that’s very…
Celia: What?
Caroline: Touching. Articulate.
Celia: Just think, if I’d married him, not your dad, I’d have…
Caroline: Not had me.
Celia: Oh, I think I would always had you. I was just thinking how much happier life would have been.
The show also discusses how much of a burden the past can be on the presence, how the past decisions of the characters affect who they are now and how they relate to each other. Celia can’t help but constantly compare her current blissful happiness with Alan to the misery that was her marriage, and shares with him that she once thought about killing her husband (constantly re-assuring herself that she isn’t shocking him with how bluntly and honest she is). Alan, later on, when they’ve become so close that not sharing such an important part of his life seems impossible, tells Celia how Gillian’s husband died: He did try to commit suicide, but was still alive when Gillian found him, and conscious, but she didn’t call anyone until he was dead, and Alan knew about it, feels that he was complicit in his death somehow. They both understand the misery and unhappiness of bad marriages, Celia from her own, Alan from Gillian’s, and they’ve come to a point in their lives where they also understand how far people would go to be free and happy (and they are both utterly stunned that for them, now, it seems to be so simple to be both these things, because all it requires is each other’s company). 
Gillian: We all have demons. And most people cope with them, put up with them.
Raff: Demons?
Gillian: Things about ourselves we don’t like. Can’t cope with. Things we’ve done. How we’ve behaved. You know he had a temper and… he had a lot of wonderful things about him, your dad, he really did. But he had his darker side as well. But you mustn’t worry about it; you’re not like him, not in that respect. You’re much more like my dad. Kind, thoughtful, balanced.
Gillian struggles with her husband’s death as well, not just because his brother Robbie, who is very involved in her son’s life, blames her and initially wanted to bring charges against her. Ten years have passed and now she is unapologetically enjoying sex without any emotional commitments, even though she makes it a point to keep it a secret from both her son and her father. It’s hard to really understand Gillian, because she is so guarded and so careful not to give too much away about herself, but during the course of the first season, the fall-out of one of her affairs becomes a constant literal presence, when Paul, someone she doesn’t even seem to like particularly much, is beat up first by her own son and then more severely by the relatives of his fiancĂ©. He then becomes a constant presence on her sofa, while she and Robbie (her husband’s brother) slowly start to work out their differences (the show hints that a good part of his initial reaction to her was jealousy), but Gillian also seems to struggle with the question of whether she is ready to commit to anyone. Awesomely, the show never judges her for her behaviour – she refuses to apologize for it (“I don’t judge people, never have done. Life’s too short. Let’s be frank. We’re none of us perfect”).  

Caroline seems to be the opposite of Gillian, willing to put up with her unfaithful husband for the sake of their two boys, once even arguing that there are enough parents “who put their children anywhere except first”, but eventually it becomes impossible for her to constantly put everybody else’s happiness over her own. While her husband was living with Judith, she started a relationship with a teacher in her school – and after initially breaking it off with Kate when John returns to their shared home, as the show progresses, she realizes how utterly miserable and unhappy she is, and how awful John is as a husband (and also, sort-of, as a person, when he tells her that he wished Judith didn’t exist, instead of taking responsibility for his actions). There is this fantastic parallel between her and her mother, because they’ve both found someone good and constant and reliable late in their lives, it just takes Caroline a while longer to really embrace the option of being happy, because it’s much more complicated in her case. The recurring theme in Last Tango in Halifax is the road not taken, how different things might have turned out if people had made different decisions, but also the idea that it is never too late to change your life. Once Caroline chooses Kate, she becomes radiant and focused, and we see that she actually has a lot in common with Gillian – they are tough, self-sufficient, and stubborn when they need to be. 
Caroline: I feel something else now. Exhilarated.
This is also the turning point in Celia and Alan’s story. Caroline asks her husband, once he finds out about Kate, not to tell the children and her mother because she wants to do it herself, but his idiocy and dumb misguided hurt pride and drunkenness leads to him telling Celia prematurely – and she reacts awfully to it. Alan, who has just revealed to her how Gillian’s husband died, now realizes that Celia wasn’t shocked by this terrible accident, but can’t accept that her daughter is gay and very happily dating another woman. While everybody in their lives keeps telling them how life-affirming and beautiful it is that they found each other, that they are so happy, Celia can’t bring herself to be happy for Caroline. 
Caroline throws a dinner so that Alan and Celia can meet Kate, and Alan sort of blackmails Celia into going (to prove that she isn’t small-minded and bigoted). It goes absolutely terribly. Kate and Alan are lovely, trying to save the moment, and Kate is genuinely excited over Alan and Celia having found love (and draws the obvious comparison) – but Celia treats her awfully, and after a very loud fight with Caroline that everyone overhears, everything falls apart. 
Caroline: Why are you being like this?
Celia: Because I can’t stand seeing you make a fool of yourself.
Caroline: Mum, I’m not making a fool of myself.
Celia: No, love, I’m the only one that’ll tell.
Caroline: Oh mum, this is gonna end really badly. This is how people fall out with each other.
Celia: Well, on your head be it.
Caroline: No, no no, look. You’ve got Alan. Why can’t you just accept that I want to be with Kate. That I’m old enough to know what I want and accept it and be civilized about it instead of this excruciating pantomime.
Celia: You’re not in love with her.
Caroline: Why would you say that?
Celia: Because you told me.
Caroline: No, I didn’t.
Celia: The other morning.
Caroline: What are you talking about?
Celia: You said, ‘She thinks the world of me’. And I didn’t hear you say ‘and I think the world of her’ back, or even anything remotely like it. All I heard was ‘I quite like her’.
Caroline: I said I like her a lot.
Alan breaks off the engagement (to Gillian he says it felt like “reaching the end of the line”). Kate breaks up with Caroline, not because the overheard conversation made her realize that Caroline doesn’t love her back yet, she knew that already, but because Celia knew before even meeting Kate, and it feels like  a betrayal. Even in their break-up, it's still obvious how much they care about each other - Caroline follows Kate outside, shivering, and refuses to go back inside without her because she "might as well be dead". Now that she's found happiness, she couldn't possible let it go. It's not really important that she isn't yet fully in love, because she knows she will be. 
Alan and Celia previously discovered that they have profound differences when it comes to politics – Alan is a Guardian-reading Labour supporter, Celia reads the Daily Mail and votes for Margaret Thatcher – but they only become relevant when Alan sees that ideology and prejudice lead to the kind of terrible unkindness Celia exhibits towards her own daughter.
They both ask each other once, “Are you shocked”, “Have I shocked you”, but the one moment when Alan is truly shocked is this – not accepting Caroline. Celia justifies it with what she thinks will be the lack of acceptance where they live (which is always such an awful argument to make – telling gay people to just be unhappy so as not to inconvenience ignorant people who insist on holding on to their discriminatory prejudices). 
That’s also the other side of this beautiful idea that people can still find happiness and love late in their lives – that time isn’t unlimited, that you can’t wait forever. Alan’s heart condition is a reality that they all have to face, even though everything seems so serendipitous and romantic. 
Caroline: Do you know what I realized last night? I’ve been depressed. For months. And last night I was so low I hit rock-bottom, and then when my mum turned up I turned a corner. Something lifted. It was physical. This fog that’s been there for months, it vanished, just like that and everything became clear and I felt happy. Like I can’t remember feeling for years.
Caroline doesn’t want to wait any more  She told her mother once, years ago. And then she married a man she genuinely liked and she could imagine having children with and he destroyed all of it by betraying her trust – and now she just wants to be happy with someone who cares about her, who “thinks the world of her” (“I’m too old to pretend”, she tells her mother). 
I think the most frustrating thing for Caroline is that her mother can speak so openly about the kind of happiness she’s found with Alan, but not see that she is denying the same thing to her own daughter. It makes Caroline angry, and unkind. They say terrible things to each other. 
Caroline: You are going to die very bitter and very, very very lonely. You know that, don’t you?
Celia: I’m heartbroken!
Caroline: Good. You deserve to be. You don’t deserve Alan, he’s worth a thousand of you.
Celia: Caroline!
Caroline: Oh fuck off.
She’s not my mother. I haven’t got a mother.
Something changes in that moment for Celia. Holding on to her position has cost her everything she cares about, and she ends up going to Kate’s house and tells her something she hasn’t mentioned to Caroline – and maybe this is also something that this show shows, that it’s something simpler to share intimate things with people you don’t quite know yet than with those who know you best. She blamed herself, after Caroline came out to her, because she thought she had projected “expectations, ideas” on her due to her unhappiness in her marriage. Kate patiently explains to her that it doesn’t work like that, and Celia responds that she knows now, and that she just wants her daughter to be happy. She delivers Kate to Caroline’s door –
And it’s almost like she is trying to perform an act of magic, connecting her daughter’s happiness to her own, getting them back together so that Alan returns to her. She finds out moments later that Alan had a heart attack and is in the hospital in a very severe condition. 
Several characters ask questions about coincidence and fate in the course of the show – lives not lived, paths not taken, how things might have turned out if someone had made a different decision, if the message had been delivered all those years ago. The show leaves it to the viewer to make up their mind about whether there are incomprehensible magical forces at work, or if it’s just as great to marvel at the kind of unlikely circumstances that sometimes lead to the most beautiful outcomes. We see how it all started, sixty years ago – a young Alan, courting a young Celia, and then waiting for a very long time. And then, Alan wakes up, and she’s right there. 

Random notes:

And if that doesn’t make you wanna watch the show, there are also car chases, explosions, lots of blood and maybe ghosts. 
Celia: We keep having adventures.
Alan: We do.
The show beautifully establishes the coincidental connections / contrasts in the very first scene when we first meet Alan and Celia: both were helped by their grandsons, but there is also a huge difference between how the two families function. Celia is meeting Catherine and William in a fancy cafĂ©, and there seems to be a palatable distance between her and her daughter, while we first meet Alan in a cramped jeep with Gillian and Raff, on their way to the run-down but homely farm – they seem to be much more tightly knit and closer. 

I really connected emotionally with the show because there is this genuine sense of caring and love between the characters – and they connect because they care so much. There’s this moment in the fourth episode when Gillian is incredibly worried that her father is missing, and Caroline only realizes how serious it is when Gillian mentions Alan’s heart condition – and then there’s this switch, and Caroline suddenly takes all of it just as seriously and Gillian does, and becomes incredibly involved and supportive. Their connection over worrying together leads to a completely unexpected intimacy between the two (they could have been sisters – they even share the same birthday). Gillian’s “I don’t know. I don’t even know why I’m telling you.” is really what the show is about – finding comfort by sharing stories and intimate details. 

Also at one point Gillian accidentally ends up having to buy a dressing gown for Caroline, and underwear for Celia (“What size knickers does your mum wear?”), and it’s pretty great, and if I didn’t like Kate so very, very much, I would ship this like a lot.
Gillian: We’re celebrating.
Celia: What are we celebrating?
Gillian: Everything. Anything. You name it, we’re celebrating it.
The first episode also features a great scene of both Alan and Celia composing mails to each other, pondering every single word, trying to find the right ones to express their feelings and to match what they think is expected by the other. Celia first wants to turn down his invitation to coffee, then can’t find the right words for that, until she spontaneously comes up with a sentence accepting the invitation. It really does seem to be fate with these two. 

Will is utterly lovely. The only thing he cares about when he finds out that his mum is seeing someone is that it is “someone who deserves you”. (and Kate is “She’s nice. I like her. She’s clever, she’s interesting, she’s kind.”). Lawrence also worries about how everyone will react, but it’s so different from her mum’s reaction still, because it’s not about his own prejudices, it’s just genuine worry. 

I really really like Ronni Ancona’s Judith. The thing is that John is just as much of an alcoholic as she is, except that he has this safety net due to his academic career and Caroline, that society is much more permissive of men drinking excessively. John’s lack of self-awareness is one of his worst character traits (also “I want our marriage to work, you mad cow”), and the few moments when he is genuinely likeable are mostly with Gillian – who calls him out on being an asshole the morning after they sleep together. Also I just really, really like Ronni Ancona, and if you’ve never seen the tragic backstory of the word obscurity, please do immediately.

One of the grossest things John does, apart from outing Caroline, is taking this as a chance to excuse all his transgressions, to make himself a victim. 

Congrats Nico Mirallegro for being in two of my favourite new shows, even if it’s just in a flashback here. 

I quite like the fact that Caroline is hesitant about declaring that she is in love with Kate, that we get to see the process of falling in love, from her perspective. It fits in well with her character that it takes more time for her. At the same time, it’s a bit tragic to see how much Kate loves her already, how hopelessly head-over-heels in love she is with Caroline. This is probably one of my favourite exchange in the show: 
Kate: My dad’s got Alzheimer’s, did you know that?
Caroline: God, I’m so sorry.
Kate: There’s a million and one things you don’t know about me, Caroline, because you never ask, and I try not to inflict things on people unless I think that they’re actually interested, but I’ve never had the impression that you were. But you just take it for granted that I’ll be interested in you.
Caroline: You offered to come around.
Kate: You rang me up, after you dumped me. You rang me up because you expected me to be sympathetic, which I am, not that it’ll do me any good. And then you’re like a man, you make this subconscious decision that I haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about it, even though I’ve been through it. And then having a go at me, last week, for talking to someone when I was upset about what happened.
Am I being dismissed?
Caroline: I shouldn’t have rung you up, I’m sorry I did.
Kate: Don’t say that. I just want you to understand, the effect you have. On me. If you ring me, I’ll run around even though I know you’re not interested in me.
Caroline: I’m not not interested in you. I’m… I don’t know what I am. You’re right, I’ve never asked you anything about you, and it’s not because I don’t… it’s because I’m selfish, and hopeless, and you’ve been a really good friend, and I don’t know how to be a good friend to anyone. My parents never got on, I grew up in a house on my own with these people who never spoke to each other unless they had to and I thought that was normal. And now she’s met this bloke, this Alan, and he’s a sweet man, and he thinks the world of her, and she thinks the world of him, and she’s so different. And I can’t help wondering, if she’d been in love with my dad, and if he’d been in love with her, how different things would have been. I don’t know what normal relationships are like. I see them, but I don’t know how to do them. So I’m sorry. I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you, taken you for granted. I will endeavour not to do that in the future. Because I do value your friendship and… I’m sorry if I’ve never said that or made that clear or what normal people do to express these things. So I’m sorry. Thank you.
This contains everything the show is about: the way her parents’ miserable marriage shaped her own expectations of marriage and intimacy. How now that she’s found happiness, for some reason, Caroline also starts to have a concept of her own happiness, of being allowed to pursue it even though it may cause complications. There’s also the inherent tragedy of not entirely reciprocated feelings, of Kate waiting for Caroline to get somewhere where she’s been all along, and the patience it takes. 

Another favourite: Caroline cooking to Clint Eastwood. 

Gillian’s sofa of awkward men is my favourite guest character on the show.

The show does these great romantic moments against beautiful sunshine that no other show could pull off without seeming corny, but in the context of the show and the theme of finding love and happiness, it totally works. 

Last Tango in Halifax, Season One (2012), created by Sally Wainwright, starring Anne Reid, Derek Jacobi, Sarah Lancashire, Nicola Walker, Edward Ashley, Josh Bolt, Louis Greatorex, Tony Gardner, Nina Sosanya, Dean Andrews, Sacha Dhawan, Ronni Ancona. 

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