Review: BBC First’s Brief Encounters is some seriously addictive TV (Season 1, Episode 1)

The 80’s was such a fascinating time in history. I don’t think there are many shows set in the 80’s that I don’t end up loving or at least find myself mildly interested in. Video cameras the size of a small dog, TVs that produced great picture and sound as long as you gave them a heavy whack and adjusted the antenna. It was a time when new technologies were introduced (see: computers) and everyone just smiled and thought it was a passing phase. This was also a time of uncertainty, women taking charge and sexual revolution.

Brief Encounters follows the life of Steph (Sophie Rundle) a working class mum who’s working as a cleaner for a wealthy butcher’s wife, Pauline Spake (Penelope Wilton, TV’s Downton Abbey). Her husband Terry (Karl Davies HBO’s Game of Thrones), a Sheffield factory worker, returns home to his wife Steph and son to break the news that he was just laid off at work. Steph tries to comfort him and lets him know everything will be fine and that she can even find a second job. With his manhood threatened, he gets angry and tells her to forget about it and that he will find more work. As bills mount and their child’s education is at risk, Steph goes behind Terry’s back and finds a job as an Ann Summers party host.

For those of you who don’t know, Ann Summers deals with adult lingerie, sex toys and other accessories. The Ann Summers brand became the number one adult orientated brands in modern history (around 2008 its yearly revenue was over 100 million Pounds). The party hosting is very much like the Tupperware parties of today. Held in a private home, you are given a selection of things to look at and/or try on (e.g. lingerie) and then you can order it. Small party games are played and if the party goes well, usually another attendee will take on a further party and invite their friends and so on. It’s the pyramid scheme of home business. The show probably won’t ever really hit any profundity on the topic, but it’s worth knowing the facts.

Left to right - Sharon Rooney as Dawn, Penelope Wilton as Pauline, Sophie Rundle as Steph and Angela Griffin as Nita. This image is the copyright of ITV and is for one use only in relation to Brief Encounters.
Left to right – Sharon Rooney as Dawn, Penelope Wilton as Pauline, Sophie Rundle as Steph and Angela Griffin as Nita.

In a time when it wasn’t “on” for women to work for their men or instead of, Steph has to deal with prudent husbands, law enforcement and even other women who think it’s just distasteful. Eventually, Steph gets over her initial fears after her work boss Pauline, feeling lonely at home by herself every-day, tells her she can have the first party at her home, unbeknownst to Pauline what kind of party and audience it caters for. Steph is also joined by her close friend Nita (Angela Griffin), pushing Steph to take the leap and do what she thinks is right. Eventually most of Steph and Pauline’s close friends decide to turn up and the rest of the episode’s comedy ensues.

The blend of the show’s themes is mostly on the ball. I think it’s the perfect time in the world to bring a show about passion and relationships and lets face it, sex! The rise of Ann Summers and women’s independence proves a great subject: The seriousness of the recession, unemployment and the comedy of women in the wrong place at the right time, makes for some seriously addictive television.

The rest of the cast, which consists of British talents Peter Wight, Chloe Pirrie and Souad Faress, prove a great ensemble. The only issue I had was with Sharon Rooney delivering a Rebel Wilson style approach to her character. Just because someone is over-weight and in a comedy, do they have to be typecast as a slob? Someone that seems to have no regard for personal hygiene or the way in which they present themselves? It feels out of place here. It may be funny for some, but I found it upsetting and too distracting. I am sure she will grow on me as the show already has, but to start with, it’s just not the type of comedy that is needed in an otherwise great first episode.

For the most part I was taken back to memories of the feel good British movie Full Monty. For all its tightly packed quips, its hilarious situations, its old fashioned values such as friendship, love and making sure passion comes before pride is what really brings Brief Encounters home.

This was however, the very first episode. With five more still to come from the first season, we will see where it goes from here. I am really looking forward to getting through the rest of the series.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Brief Encounters airs on BBC First on Foxtel – Saturdays at 9.25pm from September 17th.