Last Tango in Halifax: The Highs and Lows of Lesbian Representation


Photograph: Matt Squire/BBC/Lookout Point

Last Tango in Halifax is all about unconventional love stories. The drama follows Alan Buttershaw and Celia Dawson, two widowed septuagenarians, who reconnect over Facebook. Alan and Celia liked each other in school. And now, all these years later, they rekindle the flame of that romance. Last Tango is peopled by the unlikely couple, their children, and grandchildren. It’s a subtly subversive drama about modern-day family life. And the most subversive thing about Last Tango is its depiction of lesbian love.

When we first meet Celia’s daughter Caroline, it looks as though she has a perfect life. At 50 she has a successful teaching career, a beautiful house, two sons getting ready to fly the nest, and twenty years of marriage to John. There’s just a slight hitch. John is cheating on her, with the alcoholic aspiring novelist Judith. When their marriage falls apart, John realizes he has made a mistake. But for Caroline, their separation is freeing. She comes to realize that she’s not in love with John. And admits to herself that she’s a lesbian.

Like her mother, Caroline has her own unconventional love story. But this romance comes as a shock to posh and proper Celia. Kate is younger than Caroline. And – unlike Caroline’s family and friends – she’s Black. But their passion is proof that opposites attract. Caroline and Kate give each other balance. As their relationship takes root, they plan a wedding and – at Kate’s urging – a new baby.

Last Tango first aired in 2012, and provided ground-breaking lesbian representation. Actress Sarah Lancashire is proud of what she has achieved.

“The role that I play, Caroline, has clearly hit a nerve with a lot of people. I’ve had a lot of lovely feedback from women in their mid-life who have found themselves in similar circumstances or are just embarking on same-sex relationships.

“Their feedback has been that the sensitivity has been beautiful, they haven’t seen that nature of the relationship portrayed or written in such a sensitive manner before. Because it’s never salacious – it’s not there to shock – it’s really, really beautifully done.”

In her three decades on television, Lancashire has never got so much fan-mail. “People maybe find it easier to write to you because they don’t know you, and so they know that they’re not going to be judged, but there have been very honest and very open letters from women. There was one lady who made her mum sit down and watch the entire series, and then came out to her.”

Caroline’s late-in-life lesbian romance, praised by critics and fans alike, comes to an abrupt end. Kate is hit by a car right after their wedding. One half of the most visible lesbian couple on British television leaves to join the ever-growing ranks of dead lesbian characters. Not even in a small-town, Sunday night drama can we escape the Bury Your Gays Trope.

Whether it’s Sandy Lopez in ER, Poussey Washington in Orange is the New Black, or Kate in Last Tango in Halifax, it always seems to be the Black half of an interracial lesbian couple who gets killed off.

Sally Wainwright initially defended the decision to kill off Kate. “When I did that storyline, I genuinely didn’t think that gay female characters persistently got killed off, I really didn’t know. I honestly did not know.” According to her, this “very poignant storyline” was what enabled Celia to reconnect with her daughter. A Black lesbian character was killed off so that a straight white woman can have an epiphany – it doesn’t send a brilliant message.

This plot twist left Last Tango fans with questions. Why was Kate’s life the price of Celia learning not to be homophobic? And why was Kate – the sole Black lesbian on the show – considered expendable? Wainwright ultimately apologized for killing off Kate, saying “at the time I thought it was the right choice, but I do actually regret it now.”

There is one silver lining: Kate’s baby, Flora, survived the accident. As Catherine’s younger son struggles to accept his new sister, Last Tango takes an unflinching look at how homophobia and racism can shape family dynamics. Time heals this wound. With real tenderness, the writers explore what it means for your family tree grows in unexpected directions.

But Last Tango is yet to grapple with Flora’s background. When Kate died Flora not only lost a mother, but a vital link to her heritage. Perhaps the hotly anticipated sixth season – which Wainwright has already started planning – will focus more on her journey in a white family and community.

We can also hope that Caroline will find romance in the sixth season. Since Kate died in the third season, Caroline’s love life has been on the show’s back burner. Series five saw Caroline’s first attempt to re-enter the lesbian dating pool end with not only rejection but thinly-veiled disgust.

She and a younger colleague, Ruth, had been clicking. They had real chemistry. They shared a sense of humor. But the instant she learned that Caroline had been married to another woman, Ruth turned on her. Too many lesbians will recognize that sudden pivot, from maybe-more-than-friendship to outright hostility. Aside from Celia’s judgemental behavior, this was Caroline’s first real brush with homophobia. And it was pitch-perfect.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. With the support of her step-sister Gillian, Caroline makes a pilgrimage to North England’s lesbian hotspot: Hebden Women’s Disco. This is, of course, an homage to the real-life Todmorden Women’s Disco. There, Caroline meets other lesbians of all backgrounds – and recognizes quite a few from her hometown. The scene has been set for a new love. Fingers crossed Catherine’s next partner doesn’t get bumped off!