Having finished my latest TV show, I found myself at a loss. There was a sense of hopelessness and lacking in my life that only a good binge-worthy series could fill. A Google search of something along the lines of ‘best underrated TV shows’ revealed a show called Harlots which had premiered in the UK on ITV Encore and Hulu in March 2017. Intrigued by the premise, I watched the first episode and 48 hours later I had finished the series. Let me introduce you to your next TV fix…
Set in London in 1763, the show opens with numerous women reading their reviews in Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies. This was an actual document that existed and rated the talents and attributes of prostitutes in the London area. With 1/5 women making a living in sex work at the time, this opening is a perfect reminder of the limited options available to Georgian women and the need to use what little they had, to their advantage. As you can probably have guessed by now, Harlots is about two rival brothels in London; the war between the women who run them and the lives of the girls who make their living within the establishments. Margaret Wells runs an up-and-coming brothel which caters to a low-class cliental but dreams of better things for her girls (one of which is her own daughter, Lucy). This desire to raise the reputation of her establishment begins with a move to Greek Street. However, the move puts her brothel into competition with that of Lydia Quigley who attempts to offer a refined experience for the wealthiest cliental in London. As the series progresses you learn that there is a personal, as well as business, feud between the women.
What I loved about this show was its raw and honest portrayal of Georgian prostitution. Inspired by real stories, the profession is not glamourized and the girls are not porn stars. There is no appropriated male gaze to detract from a realistic narrative about the oldest profession in the world. Dealing with issues like abusive clients, unwanted pregnancies and religious/ social judgement, the girls, who represent a broad spectrum of body shapes, deliver convincing and entertaining performances. Behind the largely female cast is a team of female creators; with Coky Giedroyc, China Moo-Young and Jill Robertson directing and writing credits going to Debbie O’Malley, Cat Jones, Jane English, Hallie Rubenhold, Alison Newman and Moira Buffini. From behind the scenes to in front of the camera, this is a show which achieves what few of its contemporaries do; it tells a story of the female experience from a distinctly and strictly female perspective.
Amongst the cast are big names like Jessica Brown Findlay of Downton Abbey fame. Her character, Charlotte Wells (eldest daughter of Margaret), represents a different avenue of the sexual profession, becoming a mistress. The series opens with Charlotte as the lover of Sir George Howard and he wants her to sign an agreement that will make him her ‘keeper’. This is what Margret wants for both her daughters. When her daughters have keepers they become the mistress of a single, wealth, individual; alleviating their financial concerns for life and elevating them above the status of a harlot. With one daughter on the cusp of achieving this, Margret focuses her attentions on Lucy and securing her future.
The show keeps you guessing at every turn. As soon as you think you’ve pegged the plot, the series throws a curve ball and you’re back to being in the dark. The morality of the characters is skewed to say the least; nothing is black and white and good and bad do not stand as obvious polar opposites, it’s about women’s survival in a man’s world. Harlots is not for the faint-hearted, there’s nudity, upsetting scenes and dark themes throughout. The dirt and filth of the Georgian London streets is brought to life in this visceral drama which identifies other aspects of the capital’s seedy underbelly including human trafficking, slavery and sexual violence.
Having said this, I cannot recommend this show enough. Each episode is enthralling and it’s incredibly easy to watch several in one sitting. The drama continues in May 2018 when series two is released and Hollywood star Liv Tyler joins as the ‘aristocratic social-butterfly’ Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam.
Hartlots is available to watch now on ITV Player!