That John Cleese is starring in a scripted series is automatically news — there have been odd appearances through the years, but the short-lived "Wednesday 9:30 (8:30 Central)," on ABC in 2002, was his last outing as a regular cast member, and before that, we run back into the 1970s, to "Fawlty Towers," a legend in 12 episodes, co-created by Cleese and his then-wife, Connie Booth. And then, of course, to “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
Now we come to "Hold the Sunset," a new BBC series making its way here Wednesday via the streaming service BritBox. That Cleese's costar in this project is the great Alison Steadman, perhaps best known in the States as Mrs. Bennet in the 1995 Jennifer Ehle-Colin Firth "Pride and Prejudice," makes this news even newsier.
Phil (Cleese) and Edith (Steadman) are old friends in a late-blooming romantic relationship. Phil thinks they should get married, for practical as well as personal reasons, perhaps sell their houses — they are neighbors as well — and move somewhere sunny and foreign. (“It could give us ten more years, or finish us off,” says Phil, who seems fine with either possibility.) Edith has been reluctant to commit, but just as she does, her middle-aged son moves back home, unannounced.
Written by Charles McKeown, who collaborated with Python Terry Giilliam on the screenplays of "Brazil," "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" and "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," "Hold the Sunset" is not, on early evidence, the work by which either actor will be best remembered. (Only two episodes, out of six, were made available for review.)
But it's tonally secure, with its own pleasures and music. (Do not come here looking for Basil Fawlty.) If some of the plotting feels arranged just to keep the characters from leaving the scene, while creating maximum trouble for them there — maybe that's just one definition of a farce.
Having left his family in what his mother seems correctly have diagnosed as a "perfectly routine midlife crisis," son Roger’s (Jason Watkins) idea of moving forward is to go back — all the way back — looking for his old comics and toy cars, wanting to repaint his room to its old color, fetching back their old housekeeper (a great turn by Anne Reid, who starred opposite Derek Jacobi in "Last Tango in Halifax," a much-loved, less silly December-December romance) and seemingly happy to have returned all responsibility for his keep to his mother.
He is followed shortly by his abandoned wife Wendy (Rosie Cavaliero) and his competitive sister Sandra (Joanna Scanlan), who has come softly to importune upon their mother herself. The women seem comparatively reasonable at first, given Roger, but each is trouble in her own way. None of them are monsters exactly, and if you have any experience of families with grown children, you have possibly met these characters in less exaggerated form. They think they know what’s best, which makes their selfishness invisible to them.
McKeown is also an actor, and he writes actors' scenes, long and full of talk, with a variety of notes to play. There is some suspense in the question of whether Phil and Edith will escape the younger generation to find their private conclusion, but the point is always less what will happen than what is happening at any given moment. It is less a drama than an eavesdropping.
Though everyone is excellent — regular viewers of British television will recognize all these actors — Cleese is the reason most will come to “Hold the Sunset,” and it’s reason enough.
A daredevil in his youth, his acting full of sharp turns and tumbles, he is, at 78, too old for slapstick — but though Phil walks (briskly) with a cane, there are, happily, few jokes about the infirmities and indignities of age, and when he says to Edith, "Due to medical science, I am now over 25% titanium," it's to say that he's sturdy, not that he's falling apart. When he refers to a bad back, it's usually just to get out of doing something.
Similarly, he speaks more softly now, with a new tenderness. But there is still a dry, imperious bite you can trace all the way back to Python. (The way he pops his p's is like an old friend.) There is a nice acid whimsicality in his delivery, as when, surprised skulking by a neighbor's dog, he asks, "Would he like to see my passport? Is he going to insist on an explanation, or would he just like to escort me to wherever it is dogs take people when they're going to interrogate them?," or when he says, by way of an excuse for leaving a scene, "I've got to paint my lawn — otherwise the barnacles start building up, you know."
Review: 'Last Tango in Halifax' on PBS is the fall's best new show
‘Hold the Sunset’
When: Any time, starting Wednesday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)