the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Greg Sheri­dan

THE thing about older folks is they are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly in­ter­est­ing. That is be­cause we baby boomers are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly old. The older we get, the more we’re go­ing to cost ev­ery­one else to look after us, of course. But ar­tis­ti­cally, older folks are chic.

I of­fer as ex­hibit A that mar­vel­lous tele­vi­sion se­ries, Last Tango in Hal­i­fax. I am well be­hind the curve here as I have just fin­ished watch­ing sea­son one; sea­son two has al­ready screened and sea­son three is in com­mis­sion.

It is one of those in­tri­cately plot­ted se­ries where it is folly to start any­where but the be­gin­ning.

The set-up is an in­creas­ingly popular plot de­vice. Two child­hood sweet­hearts some­how lose con­tact and are re­united many decades later as dotage is ap­proach­ing.

This was the cir­cum­stance in the highly suc­cess­ful se­ries As Time Goes By. Lionel and Jean fell in love as young­sters. He then went off to the Korean War and she never re­ceived the cru­cial let­ter he sent. She thought he had lost in­ter­est. And so it went for 40 years or so un­til they ran into each other and one thing led to another.

Last Tango uses a sim­i­lar scheme. Two 16year-olds, Alan and Celia, are smit­ten. Her fam­ily moves to another town so she can’t meet Alan for their first for­mal date. She gives a note to a friend to let him know both what hap­pened and her new ad­dress. The friend never de­liv­ers the note and mar­ries Alan her­self.

This cou­ple doesn’t meet then for another 60 years, when Face­book brings them to­gether in their mid-70s.

As peo­ple re­main ac­tive into the 70s and 80s, fic­tion is now start­ing to lengthen the time-hori­zons for this par­tic­u­lar plot de­vice. It works very well be­cause it gives the re­la­tion­ship story the two nor­mally con­tra­dic­tory qual­i­ties of long ac­quain­tance and new ro­mance, fresh­ness and fa­mil­iar­ity.

And if there is one thing TV plot­ting likes, it is hav­ing its cake and eat­ing it too.

A happy mar­riage of any kind is dif­fi­cult for fic­tion to deal with be­cause it lacks ob­vi­ous points of drama. That is why, as E.M. Forster pointed out, nov­els of­ten end with a mar­riage.

But new ro­mance is per­fect for fic­tion. So when deal­ing with older folks a long thwarted, newly re­united cou­ple gives you the best of all worlds.

Celia is played by the TV stal­wart, Anne Reid. I find her rich, sweet, north­ern ac­cent and nat­u­rally melo­di­ous voice almost a per­form- ance in it­self and com­pletely cap­ti­vat­ing. Equally good is Derek Ja­cobi’s Alan, as the model of north­ern de­cency. Th­ese older peo­ple, like the char­ac­ters in The

Best Ex­otic Marigold Ho­tel, con­front tough and com­plex is­sues, not only (but not least ei­ther) be­cause they are get­ting near to the time of their deaths.

This is very high-class Bri­tish TV but I have one com­plaint. In or­der to pro­pel the plot, the au­thors some­times make char­ac­ters be­have out of character, that is, in­con­sis­tent with the way they have pre­vi­ously been drawn.

This is a crit­i­cism that was made of Wil­liam Thack­eray’s char­ac­ters in his vast Vic­to­rian nov­els, es­pe­cially Van­ity Fair. But Thack­eray was such a good writer that the char­ac­ters were con­vinc­ing de­spite their in­con­sis­ten­cies.

The same is sub­stan­tially true of Last Tango. The act­ing is of such a con­sis­tently high stan­dard that each mo­ment seems real even if, log­i­cally, it con­tra­dicts the mo­ment be­fore.

All fic­tion in­volves the will­ing sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief but the best fic­tion shouldn’t make you ac­cept an un­ex­plained, or worse, un­ac­knowl­edged, con­tra­dic­tion. The dan­ger is that you then care about the char­ac­ters less be­cause you no longer fully be­lieve in them.

Nat­u­rally, flesh and blood hu­man be­ings are a mass of con­tra­dic­tions. But gen­er­ally there is a thread of con­sis­tency in most peo­ple.

Fic­tion needs its char­ac­ters to de­velop, but TV too of­ten has them be­hav­ing ran­domly to fa­cil­i­tate plot lines.

Th­ese, of course, are mi­nor com­plaints, and I reach a happy con­clu­sion: the age of the geezer is upon us.

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