Heaving bosoms, blotchy bums and dialogue so fruity you can taste it. These are just a few of the pleasures to be found in Harlots, a female-centric drama about two rival brothels fighting for business in 18th century London. Here are some of the reasons to spend time with these feisty madams who manage to survive, and sometimes thrive, in a cruelly patriarchal society. The new second season is streaming now at SBS On Demand.
Magnificent dueling brothel madams
Samantha Morton (Morvern Callar, In America) is magnificent as the bosomy Margaret Wells, the striving, spitting madam of a downtown whorehouse. She’s the mother of two daughters who are following her into the profession. The beautiful and headstrong Charlotte (Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay) has snagged herself a jealous young gentleman who wants to tie her down with an exclusivity contract.
Then there’s the blonde and virginal Lucy (Eloise Smyth). She’s been educated and well-fed, but is now required to pay her way and her mother is keen to secure the best price for her deflowering. A bidding war is underway for the privilege. It may seem heartless, but we come to understand the survival instinct driving this mother's tough love.
WATCH: Seasons one and two of Harlots are streaming at SBS On Demand
At the other end of town is the more refined Lydia Quigley (stage and screen legend Lesley Manville). Her girls wear powdered wigs and pastel silks, and can almost pass for "ladies". A mystery unravels as to why Mrs Quigley hates Mrs Wells and has engaged the Puritan activists to shut down her rival’s “flyblown cunny-house”.
Much conniving and hissing banter ensues, though the results are far from playful. Harlots is a series that enjoys and indulges its bawdy scenes (complete with an electric guitar-driven indie-rock soundtrack) while also showing the serious consequences and harsh realities of the period.
The tang of fruity dialogue
“When the time comes, I hope your quim splits,” says one spiteful lass to the virginal Lucy. “I’m as soft as a rotted fruit,” moans a gentleman struggling to attain an erection. It’s dialogue like this that makes you gasp and giggle. And when Morton delivers her harsh philosophies, it’s in an accent you want to mimic. “This city is made of our flesh,” she says fiercely. “Every brick. Every beam. We’ll 'ave our piece of it. The only safety is money. One day, welf will make you free.”
History from a woman’s perspective
As the opening credits state, in 1763, London was booming, with one in five women making a living selling sex. This astonishing statistic is enough to make one pause and wonder why it took so long to produce such a drama.
Harlots was inspired by British historian Hallie Rubehnold’s 2005 book, The Covent Garden Ladies, which drew on Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, a pocket guide to London’s prostitutes, published between 1757 and 1795. In erotic and salacious prose, the guide described the physical appearance and sexual specialities of the women on offer. This booklet features in the first episode of Harlots, where we see the girls huddling round a freshly printed copy and reading their own reviews. These include complimentary terms like “the gateway to the temple of bliss” as well as less flattering descriptions of one woman’s tendency to sweat like a hog in summer heat.
Creators and writers Moira Buffini (Jane Eyre, Tamara Drewe) and Alison Newman (best known as an actress in Footballer’s Wives and Bad Girls) have said they made Harlots because they wanted to make a show with a huge female cast, and parts for women of all shapes, ages and sizes – “a kind of Orange is the New Black, but in 18th century London.” The result is a female-driven show written, directed and produced by women (in a co-production between ITV and Hulu).
The cast of characters covers a broad and colourful spectrum of sex workers, from the decidedly downtrodden streetwalkers to working-class brothel workers and high society courtesans. In a world where women had few earning options and were the property of either fathers or husbands, these working women pushed and stretched the norms and rules of the day.
It’s fodder for rich drama, humour and pathos, and, of course, a whole lot of sex scenes. It may be a stretch to call Harlots feminist, but these sex scenes are plotted and shot with sympathy for the women and a fair degree of disdain for the red-faced thrusting men, and they’re always central to the character-driven plot.
Both seasons of Harlots are streaming now at SBS On Demand: