As upmarket madam Lydia Quigley, Lesley Manville gets many of the best lines in Harlots. Whether Lydia is putting her workers in their place or waging war against her former employee-turned-competitor, Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton), Manville spits wicked words and plays manipulative games in scene-stealing fashion. There’s never a dull moment in the 18th century-set prostitution drama, which follows the ins and outs of the London sex trade at a time when one in five women were involved in the industry, but the English actress’s scenes are livelier than most. Playing an acid-tongued, power-hungry brothel keeper will have that effect.
Indeed, Manville’s is the type of performance that springs from an actress embracing the unpleasant intricacies of her role and running with them. And, as has been one of her particular skills over her four-decade stint on the stage and screen, it offers up an addition to her resume that’s quite unlike anything she has done before. Best known for her many collaborations with director Mike Leigh, her involvement in the eight-part series is worlds away from Another Year’s unhappy, alcohol-medicated divorcee or All or Nothing’s troubled mother coping with a raft of family stresses.
With everything from British soap Emmerdale to playing a pixie in Maleficent to the next Paul Thomas Anderson movie also to her name, Manville has worked hard to avoid type-casting, seek out challenging roles and carve out a fulfilling career, the fruits of which she’s now enjoying thanks to the likes of Harlots. Over her morning cup of tea, she explains her passion for the show’s perspective and history, the importance of variety — in her own output, in female characters, and when depicting middle-aged and older women — and valuing the craft and joys of acting over the pursuit of fame.
Your character in Harlots, Lydia Quigley, has been described the “Lady Macbeth of brothel keepers”. Was that part of the appeal of the role?
It's certainly a good line to pull in any actress, I would say. And especially for me, it came after playing characters that were very gentle and kind, and then I'd obviously done a play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which is an [Eugene] O'Neill play. And so when somebody says, "Oh, here are these scripts, and she's the Lady Macbeth of brothel keepers,” you can't help but feel your ears pricking up and thinking, “Oooh, this sounds tantalising.”
I read the first three scripts, and I was very taken and impressed. So I asked to meet Moira Buffini, the writer, and Coky Giedroyc, who was going to direct the first three — you know, to talk it through with them and see where the character was going to go, because at that point they only had the three scripts. And yeah, it was very appealing. It is a fantastic character. I mean, she's pretty awful, and as the series progresses, it becomes desperately dark and unpleasant, and really foul the way she treats some young girls. Really shockingly badly. But one of the things I enjoyed playing about Lydia is that she always has this razor-sharp wit, and that's very satisfying to play.
And Moira Buffini allows a lot of freedom, so I felt very free to create a character, throw it around, see where it would go. Something like that, it's a case of getting up and doing it. I mean of course I did my research, and of course I had lots of thoughts about Lydia, but really and truly it all kind of happened once I got on the floor in the costume, on location and just started seeing where we could go with her. And so I enjoyed it hugely. Certainly, for somebody who likes to have a chameleon career, it was a territory I hadn't really played fully before.
And the period was very interesting. You know, those women in that time were fascinating — and the culture and the life of London in 1763, if you were a prostitute or a brothel keeper, was so interesting. I think the series has really shone a very realistic light — none of it is made up or invented or far-fetched. It’s all as it was. One in five women in that time in London were prostitutes. And there were all different classes of women being prostitutes. Not just the working-class girls, as you can see from the girls who are prostitutes in Lydia's brothel. There was a market for prostitutes across the social scale. So it was a fascinating period to delve into.
Is that part of the appeal to audiences? Harlots starts with that fact on the screen — that one in five women at the time worked in the sex trade in the period — and that’ll be news to plenty of people. And it offers that variety of perspectives that you've touched upon.
All types of women, all types of female characters.
Yes! Yes! That's what, I mean, yes — that I think is. It's tempting to think, "Oh, prostitution is a working-class thing.” It was, as [William] Hogarth did in his drawings and paintings of the time — the [A] Harlot's Progress sequence of paintings he did, which are about working-class girls coming down from the industrial north seeking work in London, expecting to work as housekeepers or maids and ending up in prostitution. And becoming ill and dying of diseases by the time they're 22 or 23. It was shocking.
But also, you did have the upper-end, if you like — brothel houses like the one Lydia runs which were frequented by royalty, politicians, judges, the higher echelons of society. And of course they wanted the brothel that was discreet, that had beautiful, well-dressed, clean prostitutes in it. So all aspects were catered for. And of course a lot of those men were looking for women they could, along with the wives they already had at home, keep in a house and have as their kept courtesan. So it was happening at every level of society, and of course that still is the case now, but it was so prevalent and so blatant. It was just happening on every street corner in London in that period.
So it's a very interesting story to tell and it all starts with this amazing Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies, which existed, which I have a copy of. Well, you can get it now quite easily. It's reprinted. It was started by a man who worked in a bar in Covent Garden. He started to write little short paragraphs on the various prostitutes that were available so men could choose the kind of prostitute they wanted. And it would say, "This is her name, this is where she lives, this is how much she costs and these are the kinds of sexual activities you can expect from her," and it would describe her body, her physicality, her style, whether she was funny, whether she was a bit dull. And it became like a phone directory, but with descriptions of the prostitutes of that time. And it really caught on, and it would be revised and rewritten weekly. It was fascinating. And that is flagged up in episode one of Harlots.
I'm scolding one of the prostitutes, and I'm brandishing the book and saying, "It says in here you're dead behind the eyes.”
Which is such a great opening line for Lydia.
Everything that Moira Buffini, the writer, has written, it's not invented. It’s as it was. You can't write off Harlots as a kind of fictitious piece of writing. I mean, of course the characters are invented, but the things that happen to those characters were happening at that time.
In the late ’70s, you were involved in a Mike Leigh radio play [Too Much of a Good Thing] that was deemed too racy for the airwaves because the sex sounded so realistic. Now you're exploring the reality of the 18th-century sex trade in Harlots. Does it feel a bit like you're coming full circle, in a way?
I mean, you can't tell a story about brothels in the 1760s without expecting there to be some level of nudity. Obviously it's a delicate thing to deal with because you don't want to make it gratuitous, and you don't want to make it a series that people just watch because they know they might see some breasts and some bottoms. And I think it isn't about that at all. But inevitably you are going to see that because that is the subject matter.
I hadn't really thought of the full circle thing. The radio play was banned because radio didn't deal with something that was that realistic. We created a very realistic scene in that radio play about a girl losing her virginity — and we just happened to act it extremely well. And the BBC at the time said, "No, you can't put this out, it sounds too realistic."
That's a fabulous compliment to the performances.
It is a compliment to myself and Phil Davis, who were playing the young lovers, absolutely. It took 14 years for the BBC to finally air the play. But I think that says more about the time period and the fact that it was radio, and radio hadn't quite gone as far at that time as television and film. So, it sat on the shelf for 14 years and it eventually did see the light of day.
Yeah, I'd forgotten about that. It was a nice reminder. But I thinkHarlots very properly deals with the very realistic side of all aspects of society that were involved in prostitution at that time. We could've made a series that was much less tasteful and much more outrageous in the way it dealt with nudity, and I think it would've been a shame because it might've distracted from the real stories we're trying to tell. And as the series progresses, it certainly deals very brutally with some of the harsh realities that were happening to young girls who were coming to London for some sort of salvation and were certainly not finding it.
Your career has taken you from Emmerdale Farm, as it was called in the '70s, to 11 collaborations with Mike Leigh — and much in between. Where does Harlots sit for you? Particularly after Another Year brought you a significant amount of attention?
A lot of critics here, or journalists, describe my career as late-flowering. I rather like that phrase. I would never have wanted my career to be anything other than that really, because if you're in it for the long haul, which I clearly have been and clearly am, it's harder to sustain if you have huge success in your twenties and thirties. And success, I think, at that time can be very hard to sustain, but very dangerous as well, because you're not quite sure what it's based on. I honestly feel that my career is based on a very proper progression of work I've done over the decades with amazing people — and that it's been a real process of learning.
When I was in my twenties, nobody thought of going to America to work. Nobody really thought of being famous. We didn't have the social media we have now. Your career wasn't based on how many followers you have on Twitter. You worked because you did the work, and you worked because you wanted to learn and get better at your job. And you know, I spent my twenties and thirties blissfully working with, first of all Mike Leigh, which has been one of the most significant creator-collaborator [relationships] I've [had] in my career. And with Max Stafford-Clarke, who was the artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre, which is the great writer's theatre in London. And I worked very prominently in plays by Caryl Churchill, one of our greatest writers, and Edward Bond. And, it was the most amazing thing.
Looking back, when I talk to young actors now who are grappling around, it was an amazing time, but it was a learning time and it was a cumulative time. So by the time I got to being in my late forties or early fifties, which is when I did Another Year, I'm very in tune with myself and my work. You have a confidence and you've had so much life, and all the stuff you’ve dealt with in your private life that obviously feeds into your work. You just get richer and better.
Does that feed into Harlots?
Where Harlots sits in the canon of things is that I've chose television very carefully, because I think my theatre career here couldn't be any better. I'm absolutely at the top of my game here. I've won an Olivier Award for Ghosts, which is the play I did a couple of years ago with Richard Eyre directing, and we took that to New York. I'm about to do Long Day's Journey Into Night in the West End, again with Richard Eyre directing, and with Jeremy Irons — which we did last year at Bristol Old Vic, and are bringing into London and then taking to the States.
My film work, I've worked extensively with the best directors — one of the best film directors we have in England. I've just finished making a film with American director Paul Thomas Anderson, with Daniel Day-Lewis. I mean that has come out of nowhere and has just been the most thrilling 14 weeks of my life.
So television, I'm very careful about. There's a lot of mediocre television around, so I've worked less television — and there's a reason for that, because I want to pick very carefully. And the television I've done in the last five years, there has been an amazing series written by Abi Morgan called River with Stellan Skarsgård. And a wonderful series I do for the BBC called Mum with Peter Mullan. We've just finished shooting the second series of that and I play the mum of the title. It's a beautiful drama with some comedy in it about a woman who is grieving for her lost husband and finding new love again in mid-life. A beautifully written series with some wonderful comedy in it.
Then Harlots comes along, which has a great theatricality to it, and with a character I was relishing and hungry to play. And it just seemed like it was, for me, up there with River and Mum as television that was absolutely worth doing. And it certainly ticked the box for one of my main criteria with work, that I don't want to be typecast or pigeonholed into playing myself or the same type of characters all the time.
And you know, it's a very female-led project. It's a shame that becomes unusual as opposed to the norm, but it was great to have a team of female writers, female directors, a lot of the HODs [heads of departments] were female, and a predominantly female cast. It was really very good.
As you’ve mentioned, you don't want to be typecast and you've been able to choose many different types of characters. That's often particularly challenging when it comes to middle-aged and older female characters. We don't often see that variety of women on the screen.
Oh, I know. I'm aware slash guilty that I'm having an exceptional time when a lot of my colleagues and peers, and a lot of actresses my age are really struggling. And I'm very aware of that, and I think it is getting better, and that's not just because I'm speaking from the privileged position I'm in — I'm trying to look at other careers as opposed to just mine. I think in the last five to seven years it started to get better in that, crucially, producers can see there is a huge market for telling stories about women and people who are over 40. Or over 50 even. The success of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel — nobody thought those films were going to do anything, and they exceeded everyone's expectations. The huge success of films like Mamma Mia, which basically tells a story of three women over 50.
And now they're making a sequel...
There's just a massive market of women and men who want to go to the cinema to see stories that are about them, that deal with their problems, their age ranges. And other types of films, like that wonderful French film called Amour, which was about a couple in their seventies, about their long marriage — I mean, an extraordinary film.
And also, you look at Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep and Annette Bening — they are women all over 50, probably all of them over 60, they're still playing women who are sexually active, who are wanting to be taken seriously, and not just written off as women who are older and therefore not of any interest. There is a shift, and I know that it is not enough and I know there is still a long way to go, but I do think it is getting better.
But I also think at the same time that when I get this guilt I have about how brilliant things are for me, I think it's also for me that I started acting in a time when it wasn't about having publicity, it was just about doing the work. And I honestly, since I started working at 16, I have not stopped. I've put in the time. Earlier in my career I turned down a lot of jobs I thought were not very good but that I would have earned a lot of money for, and I've carried on doing the theatre work I wanted to do to give my career real backbone and to give myself real credibility, and I've done that — and now, I'm looking at a four-decade career.
I have to say to myself that a lot of the reasons I am where I am now are because of the choices I made earlier on, and the fact I've kept at it and been very strict about not being typecast. There've been many times when, earlier in my career, finances were really tough, and I've stuck to my guns and turned down more lucrative work to do work I've thought would actually help me further in my career, so I feel a lot of the position I'm in now is because all of that is paying off.
Watch season one of Harlots, streaming now at SBS On Demand: