Sally Wainwright’s blissfully good, Bafta-winning comedy drama Last Tango in Halifax returned on Sunday night for a fifth season, as we reunited with childhood sweethearts Alan (Derek Jacobi) and Celia (Anne Reid), who in season one reconnected with the help of social media. The couple decided to get married – to the initial consternation of their respective grown-up daughters, farmer Gillian (Nicola Walker) and headteacher Caroline (Sarah Lancashire).
Viewers who’ve waited four years for the show’s latest instalment will find that all its hallmarks – laughs, bite, well-crafted characters, beautifully written dialogue, and single glances that express more about love and family than most shows do in an entire series – are all back in this series opener. But when it comes to the show’s central, life-affirming relationship between two senior citizens, Wainwright leaves us in doubt.
Seven years married, and everything seems rosy for the 80-something year olds as they relax in their spacious new bungalow overlooking the Calder Valley – at least at first glance. “Are we opening a bottle of Prosecco?” Celia asks. “Well, it is a Tuesday,” Alan quips.
However, the pair were always very different, both when it came to both politics – she’s a Daily Mail reader, he prefers “namby-pamby left-wing claptrap” – and their respective temperaments. Celia is sharp-tongued and snobbish, and (as both Caroline and Gillian observe) has so far been running rings around her new husband, dictating where they live, what they spend their money on, and forcing his old pal Harry to take his grubby shoes off every time he visits.
It’s hardly surprising that Alan is applying for a job as cashier at a local supermarket, to Celia’s complete horror: “What if people see you?” she squawks.
Meanwhile Alan’s daughter Gillian has woodworm (no jokes please, it’s very serious), and is facing a hefty bill to fix her roof. But the question remains as to whether Alan will be able to help her out, given that Celia has got her heart set on an expensive, handcrafted new kitchen.
It all comes to a head at Gillian and Caroline’s joint birthday party at Far Slack Farm, when Celia discovers Alan’s plan to lend Gillian the cash and delay their own kitchen plans. At first, it seems that father and daughter will get away unscathed, but this is Celia we’re talking about.
As the conversation moves on, the camera slowly zooms in on her, sulking in silence, before she finally snaps and gives her step-daughter a piece of her mind. For anyone who’s ever been caught up in a family squabble over the dining table, the sequence will prove all too familiar.
Meanwhile, Caroline’s ex, John – whom actor Tony Gardner somehow manages to imbue with a kind of loveable charm, despite the character’s many, many flaws – is living with Judith (the woman he cheated on Caroline with). She’s a best-selling children’s author, with a god-like status among tweens to rival even JK Rowling’s, but she’s also a recovering alcoholic with an endless supply of cruel jibes. When she proposes marriage, no one is more surprised than John.
Caroline herself is happy as a widow and single parent to five-year-old Flora (Caroline’s wife, Kate, was pregnant via a sperm donor when she was hit by a car). Her once-challenging state secondary school is now thriving under her care (they’ve even had Michelle Obama round), but as her head is turned by a fellow teacher, could a new romance spell trouble for her?
Love, heartache, class, money troubles, and family: Last Tango in Halifax may be a show about the everyday, but Wainwright’s bittersweet series opener proves that it’s anything but dull.
The four-part series continues on Sundays at 9pm on BBC One