Last Tango’s bittersweet backstory: Its stars reveal the dramas in store for their characters

Sally Wainwright has written some of the most compelling and hard-hitting TV dramas of our time – Happy Valley, Gentleman Jack and Scott & Bailey among them. 

There is one series that has a special (and softer) place in her heart, though. 

Last Tango In Halifax – an uplifting tale of two pensioners who find love – might have been ground-breaking for the TV industry when it first aired in 2012 (never before had we seen late-life love addressed thus), but it was also a deeply personal project.

The BAFTA award-winning story of Celia and Alan (played beautifully by Anne Reid and Sir Derek Jacobi) was based on her own mother Dorothy’s whirlwind romance with her second husband Alec Walker. 

Dorothy and Alec had been at school together, and unbeknown to Dorothy, Alec had always held a torch for her. 

They only got together when both were widowed and in their 70s.

Anne Reid and Sir Derek Jacobi will return as Celia and Alan in the upcoming series of Last Tango in Halifax, which starts on 23 February

Anne Reid and Sir Derek Jacobi will return as Celia and Alan in the upcoming series of Last Tango in Halifax, which starts on 23 February

Anne Reid and Sir Derek Jacobi will return as Celia and Alan in the upcoming series of Last Tango in Halifax, which starts on 23 February

Not every mother would be thrilled to have her daughter retell this story for public entertainment, and Sally was adamant she had to have her mother’s blessing before she went ahead with her televised version. 

Not least because the fictional character Celia wasn’t necessarily a likeable heroine. 

Celia was a hoot but also a nightmare mother, and a snob to boot. Not that it bothered Dorothy. ‘She was thrilled about it,’ Sally admits. ‘She loved Celia.’

Her mother wasn’t a snob, but there were similarities. ‘Like Celia, Mum called a spade a spade. But she was so proud of Last Tango because it was such a beautiful story and she felt, like I did, that falling in love at 75 was something to be celebrated.’

Even so, Sally told her mother that she could veto a plotline if it was too close to home. 

‘I ran through everything with her because some scenes were taken straight from her life. Only once did she say, “That’s too much” and I took something out [Sally won’t say what it was]. But she loved to watch it.’

What’s sad today is that use of the past tense. For, as Sally explains, her mother won’t be watching the new series. 

‘Mum has dementia so she won’t see it,’ she says. Watching her mother’s decline has clearly been devastating. Does she still know who Sally is? 

The BAFTA award-winning story of Celia and Alan was based on Sally Wainwright's own mother Dorothy’s whirlwind romance with her second husband Alec Walker. Pictured, Dorothy Walker

The BAFTA award-winning story of Celia and Alan was based on Sally Wainwright's own mother Dorothy’s whirlwind romance with her second husband Alec Walker. Pictured, Dorothy Walker

The BAFTA award-winning story of Celia and Alan was based on Sally Wainwright’s own mother Dorothy’s whirlwind romance with her second husband Alec Walker. Pictured, Dorothy Walker

‘She does, just about, or rather she knows she loves me. When I’m there, she knows she feels comfortable and safe with me. It’s sometimes not clear if she knows exactly who I am, yet sometimes she’s quite lucid. We’re in that twilight zone.’

Real life can have such rubbish endings. Alec (‘the loveliest man you could ever meet’) died suddenly in 2009. 

Its strength is that it’s real, not sepia-tinted  

Quite how much of this darker side to her personal story Sally has used in this series remains to be seen. 

There’s mention of dementia in the first episode when Alan’s brother Ted arrives on a visit from New Zealand, and there are rumours from his children that he hasn’t been himself, but Sally rules out any notion that we’re heading into difficult-to-witness territory with Celia or Alan.

‘Oh no. One of the stories does involve what happens when things start to go wrong, but Last Tango has to be uplifting, and both Derek and Anne are in extremely good health.’ 

Will they go on forever? They’ve certainly outlasted any of the characters in Sally’s other dramas. ‘This is the fifth series, and I’ve never written a fifth series of anything else before.’ 

Dorothy and Alec had been at school together, and unbeknown to Dorothy, Alec had always held a torch for her. They married (pictured) in 2005 at St Bartholomew's Church,  Oxfordshire

Dorothy and Alec had been at school together, and unbeknown to Dorothy, Alec had always held a torch for her. They married (pictured) in 2005 at St Bartholomew's Church,  Oxfordshire

Dorothy and Alec had been at school together, and unbeknown to Dorothy, Alec had always held a torch for her. They married (pictured) in 2005 at St Bartholomew’s Church,  Oxfordshire

There have been three full series, the last of which was five years ago, and there was also a two-part Christmas special in 2016, which Sally refers to as a series.

You just have to step onto the set of Last Tango to appreciate the care with which it has been crafted. 

Sally entrusted the characters of Celia and Alan to two giants of the industry. Anne, whom she knew of old, was cast first, then Derek. ‘I thought he only played kings,’ says Anne today, as Sir Derek titters.

Me, my hubby and Rachel Weisz

Nicola Walker pictured as Gillian in Last Tango

Nicola Walker pictured as Gillian in Last Tango

Nicola Walker pictured as Gillian in Last Tango

Nicola Walker is one of our most in-demand actresses now, but it was not always like this. 

She says she struggled to get parts on TV in the 90s, and so did more theatre. 

‘It felt I was wrong for everything. For TV, there was only the attractive girlfriend or the mum. 

‘I wasn’t really girlfriend material, and I was too young to be a mother.’

It was the spy show Spooks that broke the pattern. 

‘With it, I found a home. That’s why I stayed so long. The spying world was an equal world for men and women.’

Nicola (pictured, as Gillian in Last Tango) is married to fellow actor Barnaby Kay – with whom she has a son, Harry – and there can be surreal moments in such a marriage. 

She recalls her husband was in a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire, where going to work involved kissing Rachel Weisz every night. 

She says she got her own back with an affair plotline in The Split.

‘I don’t blame him. I was at uni with Rachel and I’d happily have gone off to kiss her every night, because she’s gorgeous. 

‘But he’d really take the mickey out of me and joke, “I’m off darling. I’m going to kiss her twice today because there’s a matinee.” But then I did The Split, so it evened out.’ 

Rachel Weisz in My Cousin Rachel

Rachel Weisz in My Cousin Rachel

Rachel Weisz in My Cousin Rachel

They were all baffled by the show’s working title, Antony And Cleopatra. Nicola Walker, who plays Alan’s daughter Gillian, joins the discussion. 

‘My agent called to say I had an audition to play Derek Jacobi’s daughter in Antony And Cleopatra. I snorted, and swore down the phone. 

‘I thought there was no way I was going to get that part. I was very confused. I said, “Does Antony even have a daughter?”’

The final member of the main foursome was Sarah Lancashire, whose work Sally had fallen in love with when she was a scriptwriter on Coronation Street. 

Sally had been one of the few writers to venture onto the Corrie set, and Sarah – who played Raquel in the soap – was one of the few actresses who made her feel welcome there (‘not all of them did,’ Sally says, tellingly).

It was a close-knit cast from the off. Anne had known Sarah, who plays Celia’s daughter Caroline, from childhood as their families were friends. 

Sarah’s father had been a scriptwriter on Coronation Street, which Anne appeared in. Nicola had also worked with Sarah, on BBC1’s adaptation of Oliver Twist in 2007. 

‘I had a tiny part,’ she recalls. ‘I got consumption and died. I had to choke into a handkerchief with mixed berry jam on it. It was brilliant. Sarah played the horrible Mrs Corney and she’d say to the make-up artists, “Make me look more awful, put more boils on.” 

‘Often you see actors trying to neaten up their character, but Sarah hit full grotesquery.’

So, four formidable actors, a writer at the top of her game, and with a personal story to boot. 

Little wonder Last Tango was such a success, averaging more than seven million viewers an episode. 

They liked that this was a sweet but not a saccharine love story. ‘I think the strength has always been that it’s real, not sepia-tinted,’ Nicola reflects.

Sarah agrees. ‘Rarely do you see a love affair between two people of Celia and Alan’s age, and it’s authentically done. Invariably when you see older people – certainly in British pieces – it’s depicted as something funny. 

‘It’s almost as if it has to be like that to be palatable. This, though, is a truthful portrayal of a loving, full relationship taking place later in life.’

But the challenge is keeping a series like this going, and Sally doesn’t always feel she’s got it right. 

In the last full series for example, she introduced a skeleton in Alan’s closet – he’d been unfaithful in his first marriage and there was a long-lost son. 

Celia (Anne Reid) and Alan (Derek Jacobi) next to their respective daughters Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) and Gillian (Nicola Walker). The couple married at the start of the second series

Celia (Anne Reid) and Alan (Derek Jacobi) next to their respective daughters Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) and Gillian (Nicola Walker). The couple married at the start of the second series

Celia (Anne Reid) and Alan (Derek Jacobi) next to their respective daughters Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) and Gillian (Nicola Walker). The couple married at the start of the second series

This troubles her still. Would nice Alan (who was obviously based on nice Alec) have had such a dark past? She admits to feeling a bit disloyal to Alec. 

‘I always felt uncomfortable with that. We did get away with it, but I wish we’d been cleverer in finding a drama for Alan. 

‘The problem is that nice people are difficult in drama. I know Derek has felt in the past that I’ve written more for the other characters than him. ’

Has she also been guilty of making the story more about the daughters than the loved-up couple? Perhaps so, at least after Celia and Alan got married at the start of the second series. 

There’s a bit of Hyacinth “bouquet” about Celia  
Derek Jacobi

The tangled lives of Caroline and Gillian have included a bereavement, a murder and a same-sex marriage, and Sally admits she’s perhaps got ‘carried away’ with writing for Sarah and Nicola. 

‘Maybe they did take over because they’re buzzy and mad, and wonderful to write for. But actually there are four leads, and the trick is to get the balance right.’

The quartet certainly seem to be happy with their individual plots in the new series, which is set three years on from when we last saw them. 

Gillian is single again and deep in money worries – but could there be an unlikely solution to this? Caroline, who lost her wife Kate in a car crash, is a single mum, raising her daughter Flora, who’s now five. 

Celia's daughter Caroline, left, and Alan's daughter Gillian, right, faced bereavement, a murder and a same-sex marriage in the show

Celia's daughter Caroline, left, and Alan's daughter Gillian, right, faced bereavement, a murder and a same-sex marriage in the show

Celia’s daughter Caroline, left, and Alan’s daughter Gillian, right, faced bereavement, a murder and a same-sex marriage in the show

‘She’s a lone parent now, which is an interesting area,’ says Sarah. ‘Caroline is finding it difficult to cope with being a head teacher, being a lone parent, and still in the process of grieving for Kate. But she does seek solace and comfort from Gillian.’

Meanwhile, Celia and Alan are settling into life in a new home, but having a marital hiccup. While Alan still adores Celia, her bossiness is grating. 

Celia, in turn, is horrified when Alan wants to apply for a job in a supermarket. Her inner snob can’t cope. ‘There is a touch of the Hyacinth “Bouquet” about her,’ says Derek.

But off-screen the pair have become firm friends. Anne insists Derek is one of the nicest people she knows – a fact you can see in his on-screen portrayal, she says. 

‘I do believe the camera picks up who people are, no matter what part they’re playing. I think a lot of you comes over that you have no control over. With Derek, there’s something in the eyes.’

In the latest series Celia and Alan are settling into life in a new home, but having a marital hiccup. While Alan still adores Celia, her bossiness is grating (pictured in 2016)

In the latest series Celia and Alan are settling into life in a new home, but having a marital hiccup. While Alan still adores Celia, her bossiness is grating (pictured in 2016)

In the latest series Celia and Alan are settling into life in a new home, but having a marital hiccup. While Alan still adores Celia, her bossiness is grating (pictured in 2016)

He leans over. ‘I have played Hitler on screen, Anne,’ he says, and they both fall about laughing.

What a treat to hear them talk about their careers. Derek chats away about touring the world as a leading man, including visiting China in the 70s just after the Cultural Revolution. 

‘To hear English spoken there was a novelty,’ he says. ‘I remember a man coming up to me and saying, “How now, brown cow”. It was extraordinary, being part of that history.’

‘I envy Derek his career,’ admits Anne. ‘I was never a lead. I can’t think of anything more terrifying than waking up in the morning and realising, “I’ve got to play Hamlet”. I mean, it’s not likely to happen now, but…’ 

While Derek chortles, she concludes, ‘I’m the tortoise, and he’s the hare.’

But the tortoise wins in the end, and Anne has had an exemplary career, even though success came late for her. 

‘I had a baby, and my husband was ill for 12 years, so I was doing little bits at Granada because I lived in Manchester. 

‘But then I started doing rep when I was 50.’ She was in her 60s by the time she made her West End debut – though perhaps that was for the best. 

‘The youngsters now become stars quickly, then go down and almost have to start again. I’ve plodded along and been very happy.’

They have a combined age of 165, but neither seems to have heard of the word retirement. 

‘I don’t do slowing down,’ says Anne when the subject is raised. ‘Why would we retire?’ wonders Derek. ‘As long as people still want to employ us, you know.’

Which one of them is the most diva-ish on set? Anne admits that she’s had a few meltdowns, mostly in make-up. 

‘Those have been my worst moments, when I haven’t liked what the make-up artist has done. I can be extremely unpleasant,’ she says.

The director said the wrong thing to me and I flipped

Then there was the time she stormed off set when filming a hospital scene. ‘The director said the wrong thing to me, and I flipped.’ 

She had a hissy fit, and is appalled at herself now. ‘The director’s a very nice man and we made up afterwards. I don’t like myself when I do that.’

What did Derek do when she stomped off? ‘Alan was in the hospital bed at the time,’ he says, ‘so I just went into zen mode.’

Perhaps the least diva-ish person on set is Nicola Walker, who says playing Gillian, a sheep farmer, is a dream because she gets to come to work in her jeans. 

Her most recent role has been a divorce lawyer who lives in Armani and Jimmy Choos in The Split. 

‘As soon as I pull on the wellies it feels right. Gillian is definitely more me. Also, I get to drive a tractor. I can now reverse one with a trailer on too, which I’m proud of because it’s tricky.’

It was actually an evening out with Nicola and Sarah that convinced Sally she should write another series of Last Tango. 

Her work on Gentleman Jack had led her to park the characters, to the chagrin of the cast, and Anne, Derek and Nicola had all publicly urged Sally to write another series.

‘Sarah and I went to see Nicola on stage and we were all chatting afterwards, and those two just had this great riff going,’ recalls Sally. 

‘They’re very amusing together. It got me thinking, “I wonder what Celia is doing now?”’ That one was up to her to decide, of course. As it will be now onwards, because this is pure fiction from here.  

Last Tango In Halifax begins on Sunday 23 February at 9pm on BBC1. 

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