The term “life affirming” gets thrown around more than once in “Last Tango in Halifax,” and that it is. An enchanting six-part series about lost love, missed opportunities and second chances, one can hardly imagine such a project getting greenlit by a U.S. commercial network, what with two septuagenarian leads, played adorably by Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid. Slow going at first, the web of characters in this BAFTA-honored program grows richer as it progresses, and by the time it’s over, there probably won’t be a dry eye in the house.
PBS takes flak for its older-skewing profile, but seldom has its latitude to de-emphasize demos been put to better use.
With help from his grandson, Jacobi’s Alan decides to look up an old crush, Reid’s Celia, via the Internet. They discover not only that both are now widowed (her from an unfaithful husband), but that his feelings for her as a 16-year-old boy were actually reciprocated — only crossed wires (in a twist too good to reveal) and her moving away prevented them from ever connecting.
“We missed a trick, didn’t we?” Celia says, eyes twinkling, when the two finally meet again.
Sixty years later, they begin the tentative process of correcting that mistake, but of course, they both have lives and history to potentially get in the way. That includes his widowed daughter (Nicola Walker), who has a tendency to fall into bed with the wrong people; and her more successful progeny (Sarah Lancashire), who is estranged from her philandering husband (Tony Gardner) and beginning to tentatively brave a new and unexpected relationship.
Written by Sally Wainwright and directed by Euros Lyn and Sam Donovan, “Halifax” is somewhat ill-named given the movie evoked by the title, since this “Tango” is less about sex than old-fashioned romance, as well as the melancholy sense of how each taken path leaves others unexplored. There’s also an element of “Gavin & Stacey,” another modest little British gem, in the ripple effect true love has on all those surrounding them.
While Alan and Celia’s relationship is so wonderful in the early going, it’s easy to resent the time devoted to other players; they begin to grow on you too, in a world where everyone is quirky and has their own foibles, yes, but nobody’s really bad.
Of course, the road to paradise and making up for those squandered years is not without potholes, the most pronounced threat here being whether Alan’s shaky ticker will hold out long enough for him and Celia to capitalize on the gift that’s been given to them.
Although “Downton Abbey” has put PBS on the cultural map in a way it hasn’t enjoyed for some time, “Last Tango in Halifax” is a noteworthy reminder of all the classy drama the network airs that doesn’t generate those kind of head-turning ratings. (As an aside, can it really be 37 years since Jacobi had so many of us glued to the channel in “I, Claudius?”)
In terms of living up to its name, PBS genuinely provides the public a service when catering to the demographic poles — kids under 10 and retirees who can refer to Bill O’Reilly as “that nice young man.” The one false assumption made elsewhere is that you have to qualify for membership in the latter camp to fall in love with something like “Last Tango in Halifax.”