‘Brief Encounters’ review: Penelope Wilton steals the show in Episode 1

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Developed from Jacqueline Gold’s memoir Good Vibrations: The True Story of Ann Summers, ITV’s new six-part drama focuses on the lives of four women who are brought together by the selling of Summers infamous ‘marital aids’ in Sheffield, 1982.

“Terry, don’t be silly. It’s just underwear.”

Sophie Rundle (Peaky Blinders, Episodes) heads the cast of Brief Encounters as Steph, a cleaner who takes on an evening job selling lingerie when her husband Terry (Karl Davies) is laid off from his job. Rundle admirably downplays the performance, making Steph something of a beaten down wall flower, who is at war with her own confidence over her new role.

However, the solidarity she finds in her friends and the, rather shocking, sexual antics of her clients makes her a lot more outgoing. It is also satisfying to see her put Terry in his place, particularly when he is caught sleeping with his best mate’s girlfriend.

Angela Griffin’s Nita is the real energy source of the episode and a lovely contrast to Rundle’s more introverted character. Often stealing the show with an audacious one liner, this is then turned on its head as we see a more sombre version of the character, who discovers unexpectedly that she is pregnant for the fifth time. A proven dramatic actress, hers is a story I can’t wait to see develop.

Sharon Rooney (My Mad Fat Diary) is not given as much to do here, but there is a sense that she will really be developed as time goes on.

It is Downton Abbey star Penelope Wilton that really steals the show here. The loneliness and isolation her character Pauline feels is palpable and Wilton does so much with just a few words and a look. The discovery of some baby things in a box under the bed speaks to a personal tragedy to be explored but it is her joie de vivre that is awakened through her naughty party that not only reignites her zest, but also her lust for her husband, Brian.

Wilton plays it with such relatable pathos and fast became my favourite character after this one episode.

“It seems shocking, I realise that, but I’m telling you…women want to reignite the passion in their marriages. Make sex fun.”

Smack the Pony writing double act Fay Rusling & Oriane Messina craft a script that is as human and raw as it is dryly funny. Griffin and Rooney deliberately provide the comedy, while Wilton and Rundle form the episode’s emotional core.

Some lovely distinct directorial choices from Jill Robertson (Lip Service) set this apart from your usual ITV 9pm drama, and Robertson reinforces the characters using their homes as subtext – there are some really nice touches in a strong opening episode.

The episode does have a few disadvantages though. It is a bit of a slow burner and as a result takes us a while to get into the characters. However, they are definitely given more to do as the drama hots up in the episode’s second half. The retro soundtrack (coupled with the hairstyles and clothing) doesn’t so much establish the time frame as it does beat it with a hammer, screaming ‘1982.’ It feels in these moments that it is trying perhaps a little too hard.

“This is not Greenham Common. This is 1982. And we’re women in the throws of a sexual awakening.”

At least Penelope Wilton is used to this sort of time-establishing dialogue after six seasons of Downton!

While this opening episode does have its issues, it is refreshing to see an all-female cast tackle a taboo subject in primetime and do it with such chemistry. The notions of female empowerment and sisterly solidarity are well played and believable by all, particularly Wilton.

Brief Encounters looks promising, and it’ll be interesting to see how things develop from here for all concerned.

Aired at 9pm on Monday 4 July 2016 on ITV.

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