TV blog: Brief Encounters

Benjie Goodhart / 01 July 2016

The first of a new six-part ITV drama Brief Encounters explores the early days of Anne Summers parties in the 1980s. Plus, A Life Stripped Bare looks at how three families get along without all their stuff.

Brief Encounters, Monday 4th July, 9pm, ITV

Is it just me, or could we all do with cheering up a bit? Not that there isn’t quite a lot to be grumpy about. The country seems to be more divided than at any time since the Roundheads and the Cavaliers were doing the equivalent of arguing on Social Media, and so far, the summer has resembled a wet Wednesday in Galashiels. With two days to go until July, I actually lit the fire. And because the pound has plummeted in value quicker than a Ming vase thrown off a skyscraper, it was actually cheaper for me to use rolled up £20 notes than buy firelighters. Oh, and it turns out that we are worse at football than an island trapped under a million years of permafrost that is populated almost entirely by puffins. I don’t know about you, but yeah, I could do with a bit of cheering up.

So this week I’m recommending a couple of rather jolly bits of telly. The first is this new six-part series on ITV, Brief Encounters. First off, anyone tuning in expecting to find the old Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson film is going to be disappointed. Instead of reserved middle class types meeting and exchanging wistful glances at a train station to the strains of Rachmaninov, this is all about bawdy working class Northern women trying to make ends meet by selling Ann Summers gear, all accompanied by your Greatest Hits of 1982 mix tape.

Sheffield, in the early 1980s. Industrial strife is biting hard. Mum-of-one Steph (Sophie Rundle) sees husband Terry (Karl Davies) laid off. A slightly bored and undervalued housewife, she decides to pursue employment, and spots an ad in the papers: “Ann Summers demonstrators required to run parties selling exotic lingerie. FOR LADIES ONLY. Earn £30-£40 for an evening’s work.”

For the uninitiated, an Ann Summers party is like a Tupperware party, only you don’t leave at the end of the evening with 42 plastic boxes and a vague desire to end it all. Instead, you have all manner of clothing and other sundries to spice up la vie au lit. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this leaves us with a series full of comic potential, but the comedy here is nicely offset with a healthy dose of pathos.

Rundle is terrific as the vulnerable but determined Steph, ad she has excellent support from Angela Griffin as her friend Nita, and Sharon Rooney as local hairdresser Dawn. But the action really comes to life with the peerless Penelope Wilton as a middle class woman with hidden misery and simmering passions, and Pippa Haywood as the deeply uptight local busybody.

This show may be nothing like the film of (almost) the same name, but in many respects it is very like another great British hit – The Full Monty. Both involve single-sex groups in recession-hit Sheffield forming unlikely friendships across the classes as they try to make a few bob from a spot of harmless sauciness. And to say that this series has all of the warmth, humour and sadness of the film should be all the recommendation you need.

Life Stripped Bare, Tuesday 5th July, 9pm, Channel 4

You’ve lost everything. You have a roof over your head, but not a single possession to your name. No telly. No sofa. No mobile phone. No kettle. No bed. Not even a stitch of clothing. No, this isn’t the latest news on the state of the economy (not even the most pessimistic commentators are suggesting we won’t be able to keep our pants) but instead is the premise for a this one-off show on Channel 4.

The idea is to see what’s really important to us. In an age where our lives, more than ever, are cluttered with and dominated by things, this asks what possessions we deem to be the most essential, and delves into what we can learn by going without them.

Three households have agreed to have everything taken away from them for 21 days. Each day, they are allowed one item back. They can’t buy or borrow anything except the basics of food and drink. And, as we’ve established, they aren’t even allowed their clothes. This, of course, is intended to reveal some crucial socio-psychological aspects of our personalities, and is in no way an excuse to show boobles and winkies in a cynical, ratings-chasing ploy. Heaven forfend!

Except you know what? It kind of works. I mean, it’s enormously funny, watching people try to go about their lives in the buff – but it’s also rather revealing somehow. What would you get first? An item of clothing or a mattress? A duvet or a dressing gown? Another twist is that they have to go and collect their chosen item themselves, from storage. This involves at least a 500m dash through the streets. Inevitably, at one point, this attracts the attention of a couple of lads, who are roused from their knuckle-dragging existence to shout “Get your t**s out!” which seems a remarkably pointless thing to yell at the best of times, but particularly when someone is self-evidently already in the nude.

The show is funny and fascinating, offering a degree of insight into the role of ‘stuff’ in our lives that I was certainly not expecting. Watching naked people lying on the floor, silently staring at the ceiling, is reminiscent of a pretentious European arthouse movie. Believe me, this is a lot more fun than that would imply.

The best… and the rest

Sunday 3rd July:

China’s Forgotten Emperor, 8pm, Channel 4: There’s a whole list of Chinese emperors I’ve forgotten (like, all of them) but apparently Wu Zehan is more forgotten than most. Which is a surprise, as she remains China’s only female emperor, a 7th Century ruler with a bloodthirsty reputation. This documentary asks whether there was more to her than just slaughter.

Dragon’s Den: Pitches to Riches, 9pm, BBC Two: Richard Osman looks back at some of the show’s more memorable contestants over the years, and finds out what’s happened to them since. 

Monday 4th July:

The Blair Rich Project, 8pm, Channel 5: This documentary, which may have been commissioned almost entirely on the basis of its rather wonderful title, looks at Tony Blair’s business activities since leaving office.

Forces of Nature with Brian Cox, 9pm, BBC One: Everyone’s second-favourite TV scientist (nobody will ever dislodge our David) travels all over the world in an effort to explain how the Earth’s beauty was created by a handful of forces.  The nation looks on, confused, from its sofas, but enjoys the pictures of icebergs anyway.

999: What’s Your Emergency, 9pm, Channel 4: Cameras follow the police and paramedics of Cheshire in this eye-opening and occasionally gripping series.

Wednesday 6th July:

Boy Meets Girl, 10pm, BBC Two: Series two of a rather sweet romantic comedy about a couple in love. Judy (Rebecca Root) is transgender while her nice boyfriend Leo (Harry Hepple) isn’t.

Friday 8th July:

Celebrity First Dates, 9pm, Channel 4: Members of the public arrive at the first dates restaurant and spend ages trying to figure out where they know the person opposite from. It turns out, they made it to the last five in X Factor in 2003.

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