In the space of a week, two characters in different TV One comedies have innocently mistaken a vibrator for a kitchen utensil.

Sunday night's Mrs Brown's Boys special featured an uncharacteristically elaborate set-up in which Mrs Brown used one to whisk a bowl of cream.

On Wednesday night's premiere of Brief Encounters, a bemused participant at a 1980s Ann Summers party made the same mistake when confronted with a utilitarian device called 'The Stallion', asking "is that a food blender?"

It's a classic gag, probably one which dates back to the invention of the very first vibrator, and reveals the kind of familiar territory One's new Wednesday night inhabits.


But while some of the jokes may be a little too pre-loved, there's plenty else to like about the nostalgia trip back to the early days of the Ann Summers party plan. Brief Encounters is loosely based on the memoir of the company's chief executive Jacqueline Gold, who in 1981 struck upon the idea of taking the exotic lingerie and sex toys out of her father's high street shop and into the homes of potential buyers. The resulting parties - a slightly racier, strictly women-only version of the Tupperware party - proved wildly successful, and quickly took off across the United Kingdom.

The six-part series is set in 1982 in working class Sheffield, against a bleak backdrop of rising unemployment. Young mum Steph's only child Dean has just started school and her husband Terry has just been laid off from his factory job. She cleans part-time for Mrs Spake, the well-to-do but deeply unhappy older housewife who sits at the kitchen counter staidly browsing magazines for macrame patterns.

Against the steadfast disapproval of her husband, Steph heads to a demonstration with her mate Nita and comes away with boxloads of slinky nightwear and dildos that look like peeled bananas. "I thought it was just underwear," she admits bashfully, "I don't think I can stand up in front of a group of woman and talk about ... those."

Brief Encounters is an unashamed crowd-pleaser, embracing soapy television cliches with open arms.


The pair find an unlikely ally in Mrs Spake, who steps up at the eleventh hour to offer her house for the inaugural party. It's here that Brief Encounters really comes into its own as a warm-hearted, slightly sentimental portrait of the friendship and community these parties provided women during tough times.

The cast is a wonderful assemblage of familiar British television faces - Nita (Angela Griffin) used to be on Coronation Street, Steph (Sophie Rundle) has been in Peaky Blinders and The Bletchley Circle and the group's youngest member Dawn (Sharon Rooney) was the star of the excellent My Mad Fat Diary.

The standout of the first episode, though, is screen veteran Penelope Wilton, who puts in a pitch perfect comic turn as Mrs Spake. "This is not Greenham Common," she scolds a policeman who turns up to investigate the party, "this is 1982, and we're women in the throes of a sexual awakening."

Like other recent television set in the 80s - Stranger Things on Netflix or New Zealand's own Westside - the show joyfully recreates the fashion and design of the era, and the first episode is bookended by a couple of inspired soundtrack selections in the Human League's Love Action (I Believe in Love) and the towering Ultravox anthem Vienna.

Brief Encounters is an unashamed crowd-pleaser, embracing soapy television cliches with open arms. But like the parties it portrays, it defies initial misgivings to be an unexpectedly feel-good watch. It's like Mrs Spake says to her husband when he gets home from the pub: "You know what Brian? I liked it. I had bloody fun."