Brief Encounters review – dildo-wielding Ann Summers parties meet Thatcherism

It’s fun in the north with this fun, if silly, tale of first-generation Ann Summers party hosts. While Brian Cox’s Forces of Nature is a tour, if not a tour de force

“I can’t even touch the stuff, never mind sell it!” So says Stephanie, the beleaguered hero of new ITV drama series Brief Encounters. It is the story of the first generation of Ann Summers party hosts, a pioneering set of dildo-wielding women out to empower themselves and enrich Jacqueline Gold via the medium of split-crotch panties and other mild and mildly thrush-inducing perversions. Stephanie (Sophie Rundle) tells her mother she has a job “in sales”. “You need something about you to do that,” sniffs her mother. Did I mention we were up north? We are.

We’re also in 1982, although until someone shouted “This is 1982 and we are women in the throes of a sexual awakening!” I wasn’t sure. Apart from Nita (Angela Griffin) being permanently clad in a snow-wash denim jacket, there wasn’t much in the way of period detail. Which mattered, because without a firm setting in the pre-internet era, everyone’s conniptions at the idea of selling a few vibrators looked simply demented instead of quaint, and left the viewer discombobulated, rather than nodding wryly and whispering “O tempora! O mores! O that looks painful!” at the screen.

Stephanie’s husband Terry forbids her to get involved. But then he (and several friends at the factory, including Nita’s husband) loses his job, so she secretly does it anyway. The woman she cleans for, Pauline (big house, no life, boxful of baby mementoes under the bed) agrees to host Stephanie’s first party. She experiences her first moment of liberation by chucking out the parton-faced wife of the local councillor, who is disgusted by what she sees – though, to be fair, The Stallion would give most vaginas at least momentary pause – and tries to harsh everyone’s genital mellow.

Terry finds out about the party and is so furious that he has to shag his best friend’s wife, Lisa With The Perm. Nita finds out she is accidentally pregnant for the fifth time (in 1982, there was no contraception. You just shoved a load of Wotsit crumbs up there and hoped your husband was too depressed by the destruction of the country’s manufacturing base to bother you too often). So everyone has reason to keep up their pursuit of 30% commission on every love egg sold for another five episodes.

It’s fun. Just good enough to while away an hour without making you want to throw something at the screen (though I came perilously close when the Common Girl from the Salon mistook Pauline’s pot pourri for nibbles), and just bad enough to make your eyes mist with longing for the great days of Making Out, Clocking Off, Playing the Field and assorted other Horsfield, Abbott and Mellor masterpieces that blended beautiful writing, social history, class issues, laughter and tears with such deft hands. O tempora. O could we have some mores of that.

Professor Brian Cox (you know, with the hair and the teeth) is back to teach us more about science, this time in the four-part series Forces of Nature (BBC1), in which he looks at how a handful of relatively simple underlying physical laws generate complexity in nature. Given enough mass to work on, for example, gravity will fashion it into a perfect sphere. He took us to Penedès, in Spain, where they hold an annual inter-town competition to see who can build the highest human tower and not kill the five-year-olds, who have to top each one off, to demonstrate gravity. The stress caused me to miss the finer points of his explanation of the potato radius and the honeycomb conjecture (in Nepal we watch the harvesting of Himalayan honey bees’ combs from under mountain crags) but I’ll Google them later, professor, I promise.

Then we swan about with manatees – “probably the most spherical mammals on earth”, because they need to keep warm underwater, and roundness creates a smaller heat-losing surface area to volume than any other shape does.

In South Korea, female divers known as haenyeo were offered as a study in the importance of bilateral symmetry to predators, and in Newfoundland we were led through the alternating influences of branch instability and faceting that brings us snowflakes.

It was all very lovely but it felt like a travel documentary, replete with thematic echoes, and very little science. This may be what’s needed when you’re making the jump from BBC2 to the wider audience of BBC1, but I hope the next three episodes harden up. As long as they’re free of falling infants, I can take it.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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