Why Last Tango in Halifax is so much more watchable than Borgen

Last Tango in Halifax is replete with the surreal poetry of life. Borgen, on the other hand, would be mercilessly mocked by the Twittering classes if it hadn't had the advantage of being made in Danish.

New Statesman
The cast of Last Tango in Halifax, courtesy BBC

Last Tango in Halifax; Borgen
BBC 1; BBC 4

It’s easy to sneer at Last Tango in Halifax (Tuesdays, 9pm), especially if you’ve never seen it. My dear T, for instance, caught sight of the cover of the Radio Times, on which one of its stars, Derek Jacobi, coud be seen posing with a rose between his teeth, and looked as if he was about to vomit. But the fact is: appearances deceive.

Sally Wainwright’s drama about late-life love in the north of England – a huge hit for the BBC – is amazingly well-written and superbly acted, and reaches places and feelings ignored by quite a lot of television, which is mostly predictably metropolitan in its impulses. It’s also peculiarly gripping. Wainwright (Scott & Bailey, At Home With the Braithwaites) understands that everyday life is replete with surreal poetry, especially as told by those of a northern sensibility. Last Tango in Halifax is a soap opera as written by Alan Bennett: a confusion of sex and love affairs punctuated by tea and biscuits and the violent plumping of cushions.

Alan (Jacobi) and Celia (Anne Reid) are widowed septuagenarians who’ve fallen in love after getting in touch on Facebook (estranged for 60 years, they were once childhood sweethearts). In some ways, this is very simple: they want to marry before time runs out. In other ways, it’s complicated. Their love affair is the source of anxiety and some embarrassment for their grown-up daughters, Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) and Gillian (Nicola Walker). Caroline hates it when her mother talks about sex; Gillian worries that when her father moves in with Celia, she will no longer be able to manage her farm.

Social class also plays a part, for this is a tale of Harrogate (posh) and Halifax (not so posh). In Harrogate, Caroline is the headmistress of a private school; her mother lives in the granny flat beside her elegant, detached Victorian house. In Halifax, life on the widowed Gillian’s farm is hardscrabble; rusty relics decorate the yard and she supplements her income with a job in a supermarket. The two women do not get on – a situation lately made even trickier following the revelation of Gillian’s drunken one-night stand with Caroline’s estranged husband John (Tony Gardner).

Ah, yes. John: Wainwright’s most brilliant creation to date. What a creep! And how brilliantly played by Gardner, one of the great comic actors of our time. I could watch his floppy antics all day. Enraged (and perhaps slightly titillated) by his wife’s lesbianism – she is in love with a female colleague and has recently come out – he refuses to leave the marital home and now haunts it like a ghost, albeit it one who always has a mobile phone in his hand (to make surreptitious calls to the various women with whom he pretends to be in love). Self-pitying, spiteful, duplicitous, needy, lazy, opportunist and so wet even his own children require snorkels to breath in his presence, John is the pivot around which Last Tango’s elements of farce merrily spin.

All this is wonderful. But what really makes Last Tango great is its attention to detail. The locations, and even the props, seem just right: you know people who live like this. On Gillian’s kitchen counter is an old, tin Tetley Bittermen tray that speaks volumes to me (doubtless her dead husband nicked it from the pub while in his cups).

The dialogue, too, is like petit point: so minutely precise. People say “at finish” instead of “at the end”. Naughty magazines are “mucky”, badly-behaved people are “pillocks”. The word “allsorts” pops up all over the place, much more mischievous and heartfelt than the phrase “all kinds of things”. Its director, Euros Lyn, really knows what he is doing; the adult characters (I’m not talking about the ones in couples) kiss each other on the lips, something that’s commonplace in Yorkshire but which I’ve never seen in the south. It’s really terribly touching.

Naturally, London media types – yes, yes, I know I’m one of them! –disdain this kind of drama, preferring instead the political soap Borgen, which has also returned for another series (Saturdays, 9pm). I’ve no idea why, because it seems to me to be little more than a dramatised press release. In Danish. With the odd lampshade you can covet and search for on eBay later. I don’t give a damn about Birgitte Nyborg’s dreary Moderates: aren’t they just an idealised version of the Liberal Democrats, only with better shoes?

My strong feeling is that if Borgen was in English, the Twittering classes would hoot with laughter at its wooden dialogue, its circular, talky plotlines and its plodding zeal for compromise (its fans call this particular enthusiasm “nuanced”). Unfortunately, Birgitte’s smile and the fact that the series is subtitled has left them weirdly hard of hearing. It’s as if The Thick of It had never happened.