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7 July 2016

Brief Encounters is warm and joyful – but no-one in Sheffield calls it “dinner“

If the program is full of misplaced nostalgia, I'm still powerless to resist its charms. Plus: Forces of Nature With Brian Cox reviewed.

By Rachel Cooke

I can pinpoint the exact moment when I fell, somewhat embarrassingly, for Brief Encounters (Mondays, 9pm), ITV’s new comedy drama about naughty knicker parties in the early Eighties. In the upstairs bedroom of her “posh” detached house in Sheffield, Pauline (Penelope Wilton) was telling her cleaner, Steph (Sophie Rundle), that her butcher husband, Brian (Peter Wight), had received “the nod” from the local Rotary club. I hadn’t the faintest idea what she was on about; as far as I know, the Rotarians aren’t some Freemason-style secret society. But something in her tone – perhaps there was a touch of Alan Bennett about it – caught my attention. That’s when it happened. Moving across the great expanse of fitted carpet, she arrived at a fitted wardrobe the size of a small branch of Tesco. “Brian can get through three shirts in a day,” she announced, coat hangers in hand. “I think it must be to do with working with meat.”

I realise that Brief Encounters is basically knickers. An Aldi version of The Full Monty, it arrives on our screens with every cliché of character and plot intact. But my heart is simply not up to the job of resisting it. For one thing, there is the adorable Wilton, giving her all to the part of Pauline, a bored and lonely housewife who is about to find boundless hope at the bottom of a box of mauve negligees – and sod what her sententious neighbour Bunny Matlock (Pippa Haywood) thinks.

For another, not only is it set in Sheffield, my home town, but it seems to have been filmed largely in Crookes, the suburb immortalised by the Human League and Jarvis Cocker. As I watched, I felt kind of funny. It was in these streets – the steep hills lined with millstone grit terraces and bounded by open countryside – that my beloved granny lived and to which, when I was a small girl, my father retreated with the woman who became my stepmother.

Because of this insider knowledge, I noticed the mistakes, and they annoyed me. Brian the butcher would not have called his evening meal “dinner” and Steph, the cleaner who hopes to earn some much-needed extra cash by throwing knicker parties, is perplexingly well spoken. The series, written by Fay Rusling and Oriane Messina, also makes much of how, when she first decides to become an Ann Summers representative, she is so prudish that she can barely bring herself to touch a sock-style “marital aid” (use your imagination), let alone the cucumber-sized baton that is the Stallion vibrator.

Really? I don’t think so. In 1984 I had a job in a Sheffield branch of Boots and all anyone talked about as they piled up the Pampers and wrote down the names of the codeine addicts was sex. I got quite an education. As for the scene in which Pauline’s hairdresser, Dawn (Sharon Rooney), ended up eating her client’s potpourri, believing it was a party nibble . . . What next? Is Bunny Matlock going to mistake a plate of mushy peas for guacamole? Oh, but I forgot. Faced with the buzzing, jerking Stallion, she thought she was looking at a food blender.

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The trouble is that it’s all so warm-hearted. Even if you don’t believe in their sexual awakening, you want these women to succeed. Plus, Toni Basil and Ultravox are on the soundtrack. For some of us, this is seductive. The Eighties weren’t better times than these; 1982 was a tough year, whether you owned a dry-clean-only sexy maid outfit or not. But given what we’re going through right now, we can be forgiven for a bit of misplaced nostalgia.

I certainly prefer misplaced nostalgia – and simple minds – to Brian Cox, whose smooth and gormless face is back on BBC1. His new series, Forces of Nature With Brian Cox (Mondays, 9pm), is about the laws that govern the natural world, a realm that is, as the Alain de Botton of physics says, ­reporting from various exotic locations, beautiful and complex.

What is not beautiful and complex is his way with words. Who can bear it? Not me. Even those of us who flunked CSE physics grasp that the “force of gravity is unrelenting”. Forget D:Ream. This is “Dumb Britain: the World Tour”. 

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This article appears in the 06 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers