With an Ann Summers store on pretty much every British high-street, it’s strange to think back to a time when the store’s sex toys and “exotic lingerie” were utterly taboo. In 2016, sex is on our TV screens, on our bookshelves and on our internet search histories. When it comes to what goes on between our sheets, there’s nothing we won’t try, do or talk about.
But rewind to the early 80s and it was a completely different story. ITV’s new drama Brief Encounters follows four women whose lives are transformed by Ann Summers parties.
It’s an absolute nostalgia fest for those who lived through the decade – think dodgy perms, patterned wallpaper and miles of embroidered denim – but the show, starring Penelope Wilton, Angela Griffin, Sophie Rundle and Sharon Rooney, is also a revealing look at how women’s lives, both at work and in the bedroom, have changed beyond recognition.
“In 1982 I was married with a small child and I went to work but I can remember my tax bill and everything being sent to my husband,” Wilton tells us. “It is extraordinary.”
“It doesn’t sound that long ago, does it?” says Rundle, who was born in ’88. “But it was 30 years ago and things were very different. Outside of London, in smaller towns it was even further back. It’s mad, to think that you couldn’t just go to university or go and get a job. People’s attitudes were, ‘You can’t do this,’ ‘No, you’ve got to stay at home’.”
Rundle’s character Steph epitomises that struggle. She’s a young married mum “living this quite normal life.” She runs a home, cleans for a few extra pennies and looks after those around her. “She’s never really thought to ask for more than that.” But the Ann Summers parties open her eyes to her personal and professional potential.
“She actually is very good at selling,” says Rundle. “[She] realises there’s just more to her and she realises that she wants there to be more to her. It’s sort of been in her, but she’s never thought to explore that side of her, this confident, independent, smart woman.”
Brief Encounters is on after the watershed. There are “marital aids” galore (brace yourself for the eye-catching Stallion), much discussion about sex and some of the actual act itself. “I get up to all sorts,” laughs actress Sharon Rooney. “Dawn and Russell [her character and her character’s fiance] have a very healthy sexual relationship. Luckily for you, you do get to see them.”
But, rather than being x-rated or rude, the drama is about the very real struggle women had to own their sexuality. As Penelope Wilton’s character Pauline says in episode one, these women – mums, housewives and hairdressers from Sheffield – “are women in the throws of a sexual revolution.”
“Women could enjoy sex and be able to say vocally that they enjoyed sex and have a choice of the sort of sex that they wanted,” adds Wilton.
The effect becoming an Ann Summers reps had on the real women these characters are based on is remarkable. “Their financial situation changes through these parties. They become much more independent. Also the dominance of the male in the family… there’s a different balance of power,” she says.
“The women that we talked to seem to feel like they were helping marriages by igniting passions and making sex fun, not just about a man but about a couple,” says writer Fay Rusling. “They felt like they were sort of sex doctors.”
“It’s exciting,” adds Rundle. “What they did was come along and say, ‘It’s okay, you’re allowed to enjoy sex. You’re allowed to be interested in it. This is for you, this isn’t for some smutty man in the raincoat outside the sex shop on the street corner. This is for you and your relationship and to feel empowered and good about yourself’.”
Willy warmers aside, Brief Encounters is really about that empowerment, the power of female friendship and of what can happen when women band together. “It’s about so much more than marital aids. Dawn’s got a really nice group of women around her, she’s got a new kind of support network. It’s all about the women,” says Rooney.
Steph “blossoms, through friendships with the other girls,” adds Rundle. “That’s what does happen with friendships, particularly with women, I think. You pull each other up and you become a better version of yourself.”
“To have four female lead characters is really exciting,” she continues. “I loved that it’s a story about female friendships. That’s really important to me. It’s not about sexy women fighting crime and doing brain surgery. They’re just normal women, like the women we have in our lives.”
So with that in mind, is a second series on the cards? Rooney certainly hopes so. “Yeah. And a third and a fourth and a fifth and a sixth,” she grins.
Brief Encounters starts on Monday 4th July at 9pm on ITV
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news