Brief Encounters

Q: What do British film successes like The King’s Speech, The Full Monty, Calendar Girls and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel have in common?

A: None of them are set in police stations. Or hospitals. Or mortuaries. So why British telly is so stubbornly resistant to moving beyond these wearying confines is a mystery.

It’s a lesson writers Fay Rusling and Oriane Messina have obviously taken to heart for ITV’s likeable new comedy drama which, with a nod to The Full Monty, is set among the unemployed of early 80s Sheffield and, like Calendar Girls, features a bunch of Yorkshire women finding liberation in a risqué new venture – in this case, hosting Ann Summers parties.

Sophie Rundle plays Steph, a downtrodden wife and mum whose own mother tells her she won’t amount to much because ‘you’ve got to have something about you’. But she finds an ally in Pauline (national treasure Dame Penelope Wilton), the suffocated middle class housewife she cleans for, who agrees to host the first saucy soiree largely because her husband’s idea of excitement is switching on the heated towel rail.

Like most modern TV drama, Brief Encounters is a fabulous showcase for strong women – though, as usual, this is at the expense of all the men being hopeless dolts, not least Karl Davies as Steph’s husband Terry, a laid-off steelworker who bets the family’s future on a darts match.

The jokes aren’t as razor-sharp as they could be – we can only imagine what Victoria Wood would have done with such material – but it’s still highly quotable. ‘Do you want a biscuit?’ Steph asked her mum. ‘Not if it’s got raisins in,’ she replied, suspiciously.

And Wilton, of course, can’t help but spin comedy gold. ‘Vera, dear, what an interesting blazer,’ she told one party guest, in one of several asides worthy of her old Downton nemesis, the Dowager Countess.

The first episode did feature both a hospital and some policemen, incidentally. But the former only briefly, while the latter turned up on the doorstep only to be told by Dame Pen: ‘If you don’t mind, officer, I’ll ask you to leave – this is 1982, and we’re women in the throes of a sexual awakening.’

TV extra:

 

Forces of Nature with Brian Cox

I know we’re not supposed to trust these so-called ‘experts’ any more, but how wonderful to have TV’s smiliest boffin back to tell us: ‘The world is beautiful to look at, but it’s even more beautiful to understand.’

This time around, the prof has embarked on a colourful, globetrotting adventure to explain the underlying laws of nature that shape our world – to discover why, as he put it, we can see ‘the universe in a snowflake’. Which is surely a Coldplay song just waiting to be written.

 

Taskmaster

This fun panel show, in which comedians compete to perform tasks for host Greg Davies, is like Mock the Week meets The Generation Game. The beauty of the format – if that’s not too strong a word – is the randomness of the challenges: this week, for example, the competitors had 20 minutes in which to impress the Mayor of Chesham. Osman wrote him a poem, Katherine Ryan twerked at him, while Joe Wilkinson bought him 42 Calippos and eight cans of strong lager. No contest, really.

Published in Waitrose Weekend, July 7, 2016

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