One of my favorite UK comedy-dramas on PBS is Last Tango in Halifax, which hit its fourth season on this side of the pond during the fall. The series, written by Sally Wainwright (Gentleman Jack, Happy Valley), tells the story of childhood sweethearts reuniting and finding love in their golden years. Acting greats Derek Jacobi (Vicious) and Anne Reid (Upstairs, Downstairs) play the roles of Alan Buttershaw and Celia Dawson. It’s a complicated relationship not only due to Alan and Celia’s differences, but also because of their adult children (Nicola Walker and Sarah Lancashire) from previous marriages .
I recently interviewed Josh Bolt (Catch-22), a talented young actor who portrays Alan’s grandson, Raff. Hailing from Liverpool, Bolt has been with Last Tango since the very first season, and he had a lot of great stories to share about the series.
If you missed the latest season when it aired on PBS, you can pre-order the DVD right now through Shop PBS. The first three seasons are also available there, whether you are watching from the beginning or looking ahead to the holiday season.
We have a Banksy side plot this time. I’m curious, do you draw or paint at all?
I don’t. I tried when I was in school and especially during lockdown, I’ve tried my best to stay creative. I tried to play the guitar again and doing some writing. I’m just going to stick to acting! Two young ladies did the mural for the show. They completely sketched it to hand and put a piece of wood stuck onto the barn. The first time we saw it, it was genuinely incredible!
You can’t pick Raff for this one. Do you have a favorite character in Last Tango?
I’m so torn. It’s either Gillian because I’m biased – Nicola Walker for me has been such a presence and a guiding light over the last nearly 10 years. I also love the fact that I find Gillian the most relatable character. She’s got the biggest heart, but she constantly makes so many mistakes. I genuinely don’t think she means to. It’s just that she throws herself into these situations. She’s done an incredible job of raising her son and keeping a roof over his head, having had the history she had with Raff’s dad. Because the show is sort of a comedy, I think some of the situations where she does herself in are hysterical.
I find all the characters relatable, but with some of them I say, “Why are you doing that?” It’s so funny. And your other favorite?
Totally. Tony Gardner who plays John is a close second. He just does it so well: this sort of pathetic waste of space of a man. (laughs) He constantly tries and tries to get back with Caroline. There’s a brilliant bit last season where he’s got the scene with Laurence his son, who [says], “So are you and mum going to get back together?” And he’s like, “Possibly, maybe, who knows?”
I think what Tony does is make that character somehow so likeable even though John is such a morally bad guy. Tony manages to find the humility and make it as funny as possible, which is credit to him.
I notice with some UK shows there are gaps between seasons. Is that hard sometimes?
The biggest thing about it is that it’s such a joy to work on. We get along so well off set. It’s such a shame that it’s sometimes years before we get see each other again. Obviously we keep in touch. The buzz of being on set and doing this – Sally is just a genius on how well she writes and brings these characters together. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn. We all love doing it so much. It’s a pleasure. No one on set is difficult. Everyone is lovely and about the work.
On the flip slide, letting it breathe for so long, you can have too much of a good thing. I think over here there’s a danger of maybe killing it. It’s nice to have the real time as well to let the characters breathe. Let’s see where they are now, let’s see what’s happening, especially with such a jump from season 3, the Christmas special, and to the last season. It’s a big time jump. It’s difficult, but more selfishly for me, since I just love doing it.
What’s an important lesson you learned as an actor on Last Tango?
The show has been a godsend. I never went to drama school, which is quite bizarre for British actors. I’ve been very lucky to learn on the job since I was 12. The first season was in 2012 and I was 17 when we did it. Not even as an actor, but in every aspect of life, these people have really taught me so much about being a good person, being kind, and having the confidence in yourself without being cocky. Nicola Walker and I have had so much stuff to do. If I need advice in life and relationships, I can ring Nicola and [say], “Well, what do you think about this?”
As an actor, there are those four leads: Derek, Anne, Sarah, and Nicola. Each one is so different in their approach to how they work, but so brilliant at it. That’s why they do those characters so well. Derek being Derek Jacobi is so well prepared, but obviously he’s next level. It’s so freeing for him. Whereas Nicola’s way of working, which is why it works, is that she’s so real and in it. Something will just happen.
I always say you couldn’t buy the training I’ve had from those actors at any drama school. It’s been so given and kind, especially to the younger ones. We’ve grown up on it.
Do you have a funny story about being on set?
There’s been quite a lot, especially on the farm. It’s a working farm in Yorkshire with chickens and sheep. Obviously, there’s the weather. Sometimes you’re doing a scene and a chicken will just walk across set.
It wasn’t so much a funny story, but my favorite day ever on Last Tango was the very first day I filmed on it. It’s in episode one, series one when Nicola and I are driving in the Land Rover. Uncle Robbie sort of said to me that Gillian killed my dad. She pulls over and says “Come here” and we have a hug. We had a few rehearsals, but obviously we hadn’t really met. Half past six in the morning, we get into the car. It’s still very professional with “Good morning. Hello. How are you?”
By the end of this 12-hour day in the Land Rover, I knew everything about her, and she knew everything about me. She’s an amazing woman and just so brilliant. It’s not so much a favorite story, but it’s a favorite memory. That evening we were in the bar and I was talking about WWE wrestling to her. I was 17. (laughs) Bless her, she was so interested and polite!
Is there anything unique about Sally’s script or style that helps you portray Raff?
She’s incredible and a genius. There are no words to put her on a big enough pedestal. I don’t know how she does it. When you get one of Sally’s scripts, you just can’t wait to read it. As an actor, it’s not easy to learn, but it’s such a joy to learn because it’s written so well. The dialogue is natural and it sticks. It gives you the freedom of an actor to play with things. There are so many bad scripts that take so long to learn. Whereas with Sally, the dialogue just flows. She writes conversations with these ten or fifteen minute scenes that go on and on.
Are you happy with how Raff’s arc has gone?
It’s been so lovely because I’ve been able to grow from a teenage boy to a man. What I think has been interesting is it could have gone in such a different way for him, especially with the history of his dad. We had a conversation a couple of seasons ago, and it was like, no, I think Raff is more like Alan. He’s made some mistakes with his underage pregnancy and obviously the Banksy didn’t go as well as he thought it would. He’s gone more the Alan route of trying to be a nice guy, rather than what his father was, which has been fantastic.
I’m intrigued and I’m dying to find out if we get to do another [season] how it would play if Raff found out that Gillian did kill his dad. There’s a scene at the very end of last season with me and Katherine [Rose Morley], who plays my wife Ellie. We were driving and she says about how PC Cheryl [Rachel Leskovac] came and had said you know she murdered your dad. We shot that so many ways. Does Raff know deep down that his mum murdered his dad? Or is it like, no, don’t be ridiculous because he’ll defend her? It would be really cool to know and to do that with Nicola.
Looking ahead, what roles or stories would you like to be involved with as an actor?
I’ve been lucky to work with so many good actors, directors, and writers early on. I’m still learning. I want to continue as best I can to keep doing good scripts and work with good people. It changes every week. There’s always a favorite actor or director I’d want to work with, especially in lockdown. I’ve been binge watching old films and TV. One week, it’ll be, “Oh, I’d love to work with Ridley Scott.” And the next week, “Oh, I’d really like to do a Tarantino film!”
The profession is so difficult and impossible. It’s about picking the right stuff and trying to get it. Who knows what the industry will look like and what will happen next year?