TV Time: Last Tango in Halifax

If you’re looking for feel-good viewing with quirky, (mostly) lovable characters, I don’t think you can go wrong with Last Tango in Halifax.

Now streaming on Netflix, this BBC production originally aired starting in 2012, continuing over five seasons (on and off) through 2020. Altogether, there are 24 episodes (which Netflix presents as 4 seasons, but it’s all the same show.)

Here’s the trailer for season 1:

The basic plot: Alan and Celia, widowed and in their mid-70s, reconnect on Facebook after their respective grandchildren set them up with social media accounts. Meeting again after last seeing each other in their teens, they each confess that they were in love with the other way back when, but were separated by occurrences outside their control. Now reunited, they shock their families by announcing on the day the meet that they plan to get married!

Their backgrounds are starkly different: Alan lives on his daughter Gillian’s sheep farm with her and her teen-aged son, and Celia lives in the guest apartment of her daughter Caroline’s big, posh house.

Gillian is a crass, outspoken, hardworking farmer who likes casual sex without strings, even though her flings tend to catch up with her. She’s still haunted by her abusive husband’s death 10 years earlier, which is not made easier by her former brother-in-law’s constant suspicions.

Caroline is the head of a well-to-do private school. She is very refined and upscale, although her personal life is messy too — her husband John left her for another woman, then tries to come back once discovering the other woman is an alcoholic. I’m not sure why the expression “sad sack” entered my mind (it’s not a term I remember ever using!), but it suits John to a T — he’s such a loser that he’s utterly pathetic, and yet he just sticks around constantly.

Celia and Alan have their differences too, on very different sides of the political spectrum and with very different ideas when it comes to acceptance and judgment and their children’s lives. Still, there’s no denying their instant connection, and their giddy stages of early love are quite lovely to behold.

As the show moves forward, the circles expand and overlap. Gillian and Caroline, against all odds and despite major blow-ups, become close friends. Alan and Celia’s relationship experiences ups and downs. The grandkids grow up and have their own lives, Caroline finds new love, and the plot weaves in and out between all the characters, showing the glorious mess of having a large, unconventional family.

I went into Last Tango in Halifax expecting something light and silly — and while there are plenty of light, silly moments, there’s also real depth, sorrow, and drama here too. The cast is superb (I mean, really, Derek Jacobi!!!), and I got completely caught up in the characters’ lives. And even though my opinions of them changed over the course of the episodes (I started out thinking Caroline was snooty and awful, yet by the end, I think she was my favorite character — and Celia just made me bonkers so often with her intolerance, yet still charmed me whenever she’d giggle at Alan), I was invested in all of them and basically loved them all.

I’m so glad I made the time for this excellent show! Please check it out — you’ll be glad you did!

Note: The video below is a lovely look at the cast and character dynamics, but it does contain some plot spoilers, so proceed at your own risk!

A book and a movie: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Finally, finally, finally… after years of saying that (a) I want to read North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell and (b) I need to see the mini-series version (starring *swoon* Richard Armitage)…

I’ve done both!

This year, my online book club (the wonderful and amazing Outlander Book Club!) chose North and South as our group classic read. We started about six months ago, and have read and discussed two chapters per week from then until now, just finishing this past week. And then, to celebrate, we all decided to watch the BBC mini-series and discuss that as well. And both were glorious!

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First, the book, starting with a quick synopsis (via Goodreads):

When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man, John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction. In North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell skillfully fuses individual feeling with social concern, and in Margaret Hale creates one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature.

North and South is is a combination of romance and social commentary. Through Margaret’s eyes, we come to see the struggle for workers’ rights, the plight of the poor, and the value of good people, no matter their social status. Margaret casts aside her class snobbery and learns to appreciate and respect a self-made man who pulled himself up from nothing, and at the same time comes to befriend and support the poor and downtrodden of the mill town where she ends up. Margaret and John start as stormy opposites, constantly antagonizing and misunderstanding one another, and evolve into the truest of soulmates. It’s a lovely, lovely book, and we found so much to discuss and ponder throughout.

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And then there’s the mini-series, a four-episode production from 2004. How can I possibly describe the loveliness? It’s got passion, drama, beautiful people, lots of smolder, amazing costumes… also grimy, poverty-stricken hovels, dangerous working conditions, and angry mobs. Not to mention parents who are either clueless (Margaret’s) or kind of scary (John’s mom), plenty of tragic deaths, secrets and misunderstandings, and oodles of train rides.

What’s not to love about a tortured, broody hero?

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Or a beautiful young woman with a backbone?

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And talk about chemistry:

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I’m thrilled to have finally experienced both versions of North and South, and I wouldn’t give up either! If you’ve never had the pleasure, I absolutely recommend starting with the book… unless you don’t have the patience and demand instant gratification, in which case, all this gorgeousness can be yours in just four short hours!

On a final note, I just read a terrific piece written last year on the 10th anniversary of the BBC production’s release. Check out the full article (“10 Years Later, ‘North & South’ Remains the Greatest Period-Drama Miniseries of All Time”) here, and I’ll leave you with this small line from it:

It’s one of the most explosive, chemistry-rich misunderstanding-laden romances that’s ever graced the small screen.

And if you want to know more about Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels, check out this terrific post over at the always great Eclectic Tales blog.