Growing Old Gracefully on the Small Screen

Two BBC series deal in a sensitive and entertaining way with the lives and loves of senior citizens.

Anne Reid and Derek Jacobi play a septuagenarian couple who rekindle their romance in 'Last Tango in Halifax.'
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It just so happened that in the span of one week I saw, on a screen, how Sir Derek Jacobi was about to get married, twice. No, not him as a real-life person. Jacobi – who is openly gay, and that is a fact pertinent to our story, not just a bit of gossip – has lived in civil partnership with Richard Clifford since March 2006. The story of the two weddings in the making on my screen, with him as a prospective half of a couple-to-be-joined-in-matrimony, were in the last episode of the second season of the BBC series “Last Tango in Halifax,” and on the last episode of the second season of the ITV sitcom “Vicious.”

Before I tell you more about the respective prospects ofthese two unions – and they are mightily different from each other – I have to admit, sadly, that neither of these TV offerings are on the regular schedule of Israeli providers. I stumbled on “Episode 6” (that was the title of the episode) of “Last Tango in Halifax” on BBC Entertainment (Channel 32 on Yes and 42 on HOT). It was originally broadcast in the UK in December 2012 and seen by about eight million viewers. After that the series lived on for two more seasons (of six episodes each), and season four is now in the making. However, I could not find future traces of seasons two and three on the BBC Entertainment schedule. For “Vicious” I had to surf the web to YouTube, on which you can see all the episodes from both seasons. The second season ended with the episode in which the character Sir Derek plays is one of the spouses. That episode, “Wedding,” aired on ITV in the UK in July 2015, and was seen by about two million viewers. There are no known plans for season three, but both series were picked up by American TV providers.

Praise galore

Almost 40 years have passed since 1976, when Derek Jacobi stammered, stuttered and limped his way to eternal glory in the history of TV series as the eponymous hero of the BBC’s “I, Claudius,” based on Robert Graves’ novels: one season, 13 episodes, and it still casts a spell (there was a rerun on one of the channels in Israel recently).

In “Last Tango in Halifax” Jacobi (77) plays a septuagenarian widower, Alan Buttershaw, who meets his childhood sweetheart, also a septuagenarian and widowed, Celia Dawson (played by Anne Reid, herself 80). Their romantic interest rekindles and eventually flames into wedding plans. The plot to tie the knot thickens when on their road to mutual happiness (which started when Celia contacted Alan on Facebook) they encounter Celia’s daughter (played by Sarah Lancashire) a divorced school headmistress who is coming to terms with her awakened lesbian identity, much to her mother’s chagrin. Alan’s daughter Gillian, who has her own personality issues, adds to the plethora of sub-plots. (Gillian is played by Nicola Walker, who for almost 10 seasons was MI6 operative Ruth Evershed in “Spooks,” which pops up again and again in reruns on BBC Entertainment.)

'Last Tango in Halifax' Season 2 trailer.

The late-romantic drama series was written by Sally Wainwright. It is based on her own mother’s second – and much happier than the first – marriage to the beau of her youth, and was roundly praised by all (including this critic) for the quality of writing and acting. “Last Tango in Halifax” has also drawn plaudits for its kind, subtle, sensitive treatment of characters advanced in years, in marked contrast to the ageism that is very much a trait of modern societies, where it is clearly better to be young, healthy and rich than old, ill and poor. Well, Buttershaw-Jacobi is elderly and quite well-off, but not really healthy; he survives a heart-attack in the episode in question, making it clear to Celia that he is the man with whom she wants to spend her remaining years.

By the way, on BBC Entertainment one can catch a glimpse of another romantic drama series, also based on a “second chance” romance, only with sixty-somethings, not septuagenarians: “As Time Goes By,” starring Judi Dench (who nowadays, at 80, plays Paulina in “The Winter’s Tale” on stage in London) and Geoffrey Palmer. This series ran on the BBC for 10 seasons, 1992-2002.

The other topical issue for which “Last Tango in Halifax” was praised was what is summed up by the acronym LGBT. Caroline decides to come out to her mother, who reacts with a sizable dose of homophobia, almost alienating the much more liberal-minded Alan, and making him doubt for a moment the feasibility of their re-union.

Which brings me to Sir Derek’s second wedding, on “Vicious,” whose treatment of the LGBT issue is – well, how should one put it – wildly incorrect politically. In the sitcom Jacobi plays Stuart Bixby, a former bar manager in his seventies, who for the last 48 years has been sharing a Covent Garden flat – and a life – with an actor, Freddie Thornhill, played by none other than Sir Ian McKellen. (“You can call me Serena,” he quips, when introduced in real life as “Sir Ian.”)

Both characters are “raging queens,” wildly overdoing on the little screen the mannerisms of elderly gay gents, bickering with overdoses of vanity, hating each other lovingly. Their little flat is the scene of absurdly nonsensical encounters with their friend Violet (Frances de la Tour), and their neighbor from the flat above, the young, handsome and straight Ash (Iwan Rheon), whom Violet has in her female sights.

Unlike the almost unanimous acclaim for “Last Tango in Halifax,” “Vicious” had its share of fans (it merited a second season, which was more of the same, but did end with a wedding, which was almost called off after yet another vain lovers’ quarrel). But it also had its detractors. Here are a couple of review quotes: “the least funny new comedy in recent memory,” or “a spiteful parody that could not have been nastier had it been devised and written by a malevolent and recriminatory heterosexual.”

And indeed, even I, an admirer of the work of both Sir Ian and Sir Derek in the theater – they are two of the most widely acclaimed Shakespearean actors in the post-Olivier and Gielgud generation – found myself moving uneasily in my armchair watching their somewhat crude parodies of “gaiety” and wondering what (and why) these two theatrical knights were wasting their time and talent on. Yet, I have discovered that they grew on me. I’d love to see them doing more of the same in season three.

But there is a bit of a problem with a series whose characters are advanced in years. Anne Reid had said that season four of “Last Tango in Halifax” will most probably be its last, because one of the characters might die of “natural causes,” the popularity of the series notwithstanding. The same sentiment was expressed by Dame Maggie Smith on her first appearance on a TV talk show in 45 years. She was a guest on “The Graham Norton Show” (he manages almost every week to have a stellar cast of guests; it’s all on YouTube). Dame Maggie plays Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, on “Downton Abbey.” She admitted freely that she has never watched the series herself, but was adamant that the sixth season – which ended its run in the UK but will start in the U.S. in January – will be the last, for the simple reason that her character may become too old to be believable.

This is admirable, and befits a legendary actress who knows how to create legendary characters on stage or screen (Jacobi and McKellen are of the same mold). They all have the firm belief that without them, the show simply cannot go on.