Does love run out when life runs out? Or does it intensify, touching and changing all around it? Two series now on our screens make a strong case for the latter — one is about love striking in old age, the other about young lovers struck by Aids.
Both pack a wallop. Since its Bafta-winning first series last year, Last Tango in Halifax (BBC1, Tuesdays) — about a widower and widow, Alan and Celia (wonderfully played by Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid), who reignite their teenage romance by getting engaged in their seventies — has been lauded for its celebration of love among the over-35s. But pensioner passion is not the only surprise this show offers — indeed, as the weeks go by, you realise that’s the least surprising thing about it.
The family drama throws us a twist every few minutes: past abortions are divulged, financial fiascos announced, possible murders mooted and ex-lovers recalled or re-rejected, or both. Gays come out, as do unexpected babies (to 15-year-old mothers). Recently, Alan and Celia got married in secret, but their wedding was quickly followed by bitter rows between Alan and his daughter Gillian, a scheme by Celia’s daughter Caroline to buy out her loser husband’s share of their house, Caroline’s lesbian lover arranging to be impregnated by an ex-boyfriend, and Gillian’s teenage son’s girlfriend giving birth (she was eight months’ pregnant and had only just realised it).
A gentle, elderly waltz the show is not — this is a tango all right, all electric emotions and sharp swerves, drama and risk-taking. It’s billed as a comedy, but it’s a very dark one, for aside from the septuagenarian lovers, everyone else is often shown in an ugly light. The family members exchange bilious words, their actions are frequently petty and selfish, their thoughts never stray far from money — they’re always trying to extract pounds and pennies from each other. This is what makes the show a terrific watch, but the problems pile up with such speed that a sense of the surreal creeps in.
I have no doubt that families can behave that badly, but can they behave so efficiently badly? There’s a danger that this may undermine the portrayal of Alan and Celia’s relationship itself. At first their happy reunion seemed infectious in the best possible way, but now it looks as if it might be infected by the relentlessness and unpredictability of the surrounding tumults. Audiences may start to disbelieve the sweet veracity of their love on the basis that everything else on the show strains credibility.
In contrast, the Swedish three-parter Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves (BBC4, Mondays) tries to depict an extraordinary period for the gay community in Stockholm in a kind of gripping slo-mo that somehow adds to its authenticity. It’s 1982, and news of the HIV virus, the new ‘plague’, is just seeping out. Two young men, Rasmus and Benjamin, meet at the Christmas party of their friend Paul and fall in love. Rasmus and Benjamin’s cohorts are all gay, and it’s not a spoiler — since the plot moves backwards and forwards in time — to say that many of them eventually die of Aids.
The 1980s are evoked in melancholy detail in this series based on Jonas Gardell’s book, and the hospital scenes are all the more harrowing because they look believable. As the disease, and fear of the disease, spread across society, we can see Rasmus and his friends, Paul in particular, adopting a desperate defiance — not only against Aids, but against the prejudice surrounding it. The flashbacks and flash-forwards add emotional realism; as the survivors look back across the many funerals they’ve attended, how do they view past experiences in the light of what they have now lost? There are moving but unsentimental references to poetry, song, theatre and dance, giving a sense of these men consciously trying to make their lives — and deaths — mean something.
In Last Tango, Alan and Celia keep going despite being besieged by troubles — it’s being in the swirl of things, no matter how bizarre or painful, that makes them feel they’re participating in that odd dance called life. In Don’t Ever Wipe Tears, Paul’s swaggering affirmation that he lived the kind of life that others sought to negate acts as a kind of confirmation of his existence. Benjamin’s love for Rasmus till the very end, when Rasmus is emaciated, blind and stricken with sores, is the tenderness of what it means to be human. On the other hand, the parents who seek to deny the disease that killed their sons are shown to be denying life itself, falsifying their own feelings and their own grief.
No, love doesn’t run out when life runs out. But life runs out when love does.