At lunchtime today I decided, after a bit of deliberation, to watch the debut episode of Harlots. I’d been bombarded by this raunchy stylized trailer on Hulu for weeks and it didn’t look promising…
The one thing about the preview that intrigued me though was that I caught glimpses of actresses with very respectable CVs. I put a lot of faith in the cast when it comes to investing time or money in watching a film or TV series. In the case of Harlots we’re talking about Samantha Morton of In America, Sweet and Lowdown and Minority Report fame; Leslie Manville with appearances in just about every Mike Leigh film as well as North & South and River and finally Jessica Brown Findlay – she was Downton Abbey‘s Lady Sybil Crawley for heaven’s sake! If this period drama was just a hyped up piece of exploitative titillation, what were they doing in it?
Consequently when I noticed Harlots mentioned yesterday in The Radio Times, the British magazine for radio and telly listings as well as entertainment news, I realized this must be one of those rare occasions when a UK series airs simultaneously in the US. I figured I had 45 minutes of my life to spare to see what this was all about.
Set in 1763 London and inspired by stories of real women involved in one of the few commercial activities available to them, I give you without further ado my impressions of Harlots.
First, who knew there was such a thing as a concise guide to prostitutes for hire, namely “Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies”? A must-read for London men of all stations, from nobility to your average hard working pleb.
Samantha Morton didn’t disappoint as Margaret Wells, a Covent Garden brothel madame (or bawd) who aspires to run a more prestigious establishment. Still she visibly struggles to reconcile her roles as mother and entrepreneur as it requires her to pimp out her daughters Charlotte (Brown Findlay) and Lucy (Eloise Smyth) to rich men whom she hopes will take them on as mistresses. (You gotta dream the dream, I suppose.) Slightly reminiscent of Peaky Blinders with the criminal family enterprise element, but not nearly so violent.
Class distinctions are definitely a focus of this series. The wealthy men who put in monetary bids to take young Lucy’s virginity are, quite frankly, pigs. Most are married and make no attempt to hide their extra-marital escapades. It is sport for the affluent and connected who cruelly use or blithely ignore the poor.
I’m looking forward to the reveal of how Morton’s character and the ruthless Lydia Quigley, played by Leslie Manville, became such bitter rivals considering Margaret was once one of Lydia’s girls. And yeah, I’m already tired of hearing how Margaret’s mother sold her to Lydia for a pair of shoes when she was ten.
Finally, there are quite a few pale men’s arses and rather large bosoms on display and the some of the language is fairly crude. Nevertheless, at its heart, Harlots seems to be about family, rivalry and, in an an against all odds sort of way, female empowerment. The fact that both the writers and the team of three directors are all women should come as no surprise.
I plan to continue tuning in as long as the story has substance and the quality of the acting holds. You can judge Harlots for yourself – in the US on Hulu or in the UK on ITV Encore.