Tuesday, 3 December 2013


By heck, but British screen drama just gets better, don’t you think? I watch a lot for its entertainment value, and also because I appreciate the way the writers make it work. Writers can learn a lot by watching how the masters do it. This last couple of months or so we’ve been treated to such gems as Peaky Blinders, The Paradise, The Tunnel, the individual plays in the series Drama Matters on Sky Living, and Last Tango in Halifax – which is what I want to talk about.

– In fact, quite a lot of people are talking about this right now. The viewing figures for episode 2 of the current (second) series were 7.42 million (BARB w/e 24 November 2013). I can remember a time when programme viewing figures went as high as 18 million and beyond, but you have to bear in mind that in those days there were only three channels, so Last Tango’s figures are fantastic.

The writer Sally Wainwright was born in Huddersfield and has lived in Halifax, like me, but that is where the similarities end. She’s great at creating characters, and says that she writes about the type of people she knows, which makes her a great observer, giving her creations eccentricities, making them different, adding a touch of daring, nudging the boundaries of what is considered normal, whilst retaining credibility. Whether we like to admit or not, we are fascinated by other people, no doubt as we try to find some meaning in life. And this is how Sally does it: she takes ordinary people, gives them a quirk or two (or three), and then gradually lets the audience in on it by teasing and allowing the story to develop around these foibles or strengths.

In addition Sally is also writing major parts for older actors; these are not cameos or minor role prop-ups (as I call them), but big, juicy parts. This has given Derek Jacobi (Alan), who usually plays popes and kings, the rare opportunity to play a working-class Yorkshireman, and actress Anne Reid (Celia) the opportunity to play a character with such inner conflicts and bigoted attitudes, who finds herself being educated by her fiancé.

Into the mix add the alchemy between the characters as typified by the chemistry between Alan and Celia, and the real-life chemistry that exists between Anne Reid and Sara Lancashire. Then there’s the attention and involvement from the producer Karen Lewis, who is on set at all times, and which makes such a difference to the production. The quality of the cast adds yet another ingredient and reminds us that Red Production Company has invested heavily in this project – and I’m not talking mere money here – due, I feel, to the quality of the writing. Sally Wainwright has an original voice, and for me she is up there with the likes of Kay Mellor, Jimmy McGovern, Anthony Horowitz, Lynda La Plante.

Sally doesn’t have problems writing dialogue, but instead agonises over story. I don’t think she needs to worry, although I can appreciate that the odd fright or two are part and parcel of the writing process and helps with honing the final draft into the finished article. She is an expert. Think: Unforgiven (2009), At Home with the Braithwaites (2000), and one of my favourites The Amazing Mrs Pritchard (2006). Oh, and not forgetting Scott & Bailey (2011). Romantic comedy isn’t her only speciality, as we can see from this list. There is also The Last Witch that was one of Sky Living’s Drama Matters plays mentioned above. In 2014 there will be Happy Valley, also filmed in the Halifax area, and this – and I’m quoting the producer, here – is a cross between Juliet Bravo and Fargo.

I would say there’s a damn good chance it will be brilliant.