There’s great chemistry between the ageing actors in two new shows
‘T HE idea, you know, is that the sentimental person thinks things will last — the romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won’t,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in This Side of Paradise. I thought of this while watching the early scenes of the second season of Sally Wainwright’s delightful Last Tango in Halifax, pleased that it had returned for a second season, and then furious because it got me a bit teary only minutes in. Romantic or sentimental, I wasn’t sure if I could see it out.
It’s the BBC series starring Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid as a couple who fall in love for a second time, an affecting promotion of love for the over-60s, and the way early romantic experiences leave a lasting imprint on who we are and who we fall for. (If you haven’t seen it yet, be aware that it’s more like an Alan Bennett exercise in dignified resilience than that notorious movie of Bernardo Bertolucci’s.)
The couple are childhood sweethearts Alan Buttershaw and Celia Dawson — both widowed and in their 70s — who last saw each other as teenagers and have been reunited through the internet and email. As Wainwright says, they embody the spirit of the show: it’s not about being old, it’s about being in love. (I’m finding more and more that, to quote Oscar Wilde, “the tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young.”)
Wainwright most recently gave us Scott & Bailey, also broadcast on the ABC, the subtly realised police series featuring all-female leads and full of calamity and intrigue. Focusing on their relationship the series — a third is on its way — does an enjoyably neat job of finding the right balance between realistic English police procedures, some rather nasty displays of aberrant criminality and police workplace politics. Wainwright reveals a gift for creating a soberly naturalistic series that avoids the blokey generic cliches and presents real women with authentic lives as police, though they are not altogether without their splendid quirks.
Last Tango, hugely popular here and in Britain, proved to be a nice change, too, from the cliched depiction of the over-60s in most TV dramas, usually old codger figures of fun or tar- gets for condescending sentimentality. Not the case here; Wainwright does sentiment without sentimentality, emotion without mawkishness, and feeling without mushiness. (Again I’m reminded of a quote, this time from Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium, where he says that age is a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick, “unless, soul claps its hands and sing”.)
When Alan and Celia finally met up they discovered an almost Shakespearean misunderstanding on both sides had kept them apart. And, as often seems to be the case, their romance proceeded rapidly; they had wasted too many years without each other, had little time left in life, and they did not want to wait.
The first season finished with them coming close to losing each other again with Alan’s heart attack, though it was less of a cliffhanger than just the closing of another chapter. He’s recovering in hospital as the first episode gets under way, rather furtively deciding with Celia to have a secret wedding as soon as possible. He’s determined to just “get on wi’ it” and she’s delighted. “We can get married in the carpark of the Dog and Duck for all I care,” she tearfully tells him.
While the overarching story of Alan and Celia is charming and insightful, their sometimes bitter dysfunctional families bring full-on drama and chaos, and countless plot twists to the series as Wainwright explores those other more unlovely places in family relationships.
Caroline’s daughter (Sarah Lancashire), a headstrong, successful headmistress, is still questioning her life choices and her relationship with her mother. Her marriage has collapsed, though nervy husband John (Tony Gardner) is still about and she’s still caught up in a fraught little something with a fellow female teacher. And Alan’s daughter, the chaotic, earthy widow Gillian (Nicola Walker), is still working on the family farm and in the local supermarket. The edgy Caroline and defiant Gillian are discovering they quite like each other; however, Gillian’s need to own up to her night with Caroline’s exhusband John (Tony Gardner) could jeopardise the soon-to-be stepsisters’ fledgling friendship. John looms as the perhaps unintentional villain of the piece, now a bit in love with Gillian, too full of maudlin self-pity to be aware of the damage he is causing. Gardner turns in a fine performance channelling Jack Lemmon’s throwaway, stuttering and stammering low-key acting style, every hesitant pause given meaning. The women are again all splendid.
Director Euros Lyn, who also did some inventive work on Sherlock, again directs and makes great use of tight close-ups, the camera slowly tracking though space and subjectively hovering around the characters. He contrasts this with almost architectural framings in some scenes, allowing Wainwright’s characters room to play out the scene without intrusive closeups. Nothing is forced or rushed, much of the action carried on the actors’ expressive faces. THE faces are expressive too in the ABC’s Old School, starring Bryan Brown and Sam Neill in a classy new crime caper, a kind of comedic buddy series crossed with the hard-nosed thriller, with just a touch of New Tricks tossed in. There’s also the slightest whiff of that late 60s TV series starring Robert Wagner, It Takes a Thief, itself inspired by the 1955 Cary Grant movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock, constructed around the notion that it takes a crook to catch one. What a winner of a format for Brown and Neill.
There’s a creative clarity about Old School, nicely directed by Gregor Jordan ( Two Hands), which knows exactly what it’s doing. How could it not when the show stars these incomparable old stagers, veteran actors who have kept company with many memorable TV and film characters, real people who have never lived? Their onscreen chemistry, idiosyncratic comic timing and comradely banter are worth a dozen helicopter shots, car chases and shootouts, though Jordan gives us those too with some considerable flair.
Neill’s Sam McCabe, a retired cop, and Brown’s Lennie Cahill, a retired safecracker, get together to solve crimes, unravel scams, chasing around the fringes of society to make some much-needed cash, avoiding the ire of the underworld and the police. They are both poor — for various reasons having lost their superannuation — and cannot resume their careers.
They first encountered each other 13 years earlier in a stuffed-up armoured van holdup, in which Lennie was supposed to blow the heavily reinforced truck door. In the ensuing shootout, Lennie was arrested and a mysterious “bloke in a suit”, emerging almost supernaturally from between parked cars, his face muffled by a scarf, shot McCabe with a high-powered rifle.
Twelve years later, with Lennie out of jail chasing his share of the robbery and McCabe still obsessed with who gunned him down, they’re in an unlikely alliance to find the mastermind who’s now hunting them both.
In this episode, as Lennie tails corrupt cop Rick Duncan (Aaron Jeffery), whom they now know to be involved somehow, a car crash lands them in a large car rebirthing operation run by the charming but very dangerous Vince Pelagatti (Damian Walshe-Howling).
Neill is wonderful as McCabe, still working in that familiar tersely enigmatic style, but curiously vulnerable here as a man trying to handle ageing and retirement with dignity but still drawn to the chase.
And Brown is like an older clapped-out version of the larrikins he has played through the years, slower and craggier, but every now and again that devil’s-own-grin, his career trademark, stretches from ear to ear.
A minimalist actor, he simply lets his mug tell us stuff, a twitch here, a grimace there, a raised eyebrow when the moment calls for a comment.
These consummate professionals manage it all with grace and actorly finesse without really seeming to try. The show’s witty escapism, the way it conjures such effortless humour out of criminality, is its other great pleasure.
Last Tango in Halifax, tonight, 7.30pm, ABC1 Old School, Friday, 8.30pm, ABC1
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