• Eloise Smyth as Lucy Wells in ‘Harlots’. (SBS)Source: SBS
Smash the patriarchy and have a great time, while you're at it.
Stephen A. Russell

11 Oct 2019 - 9:07 AM  UPDATED 8 Apr 2020 - 2:17 PM

We’re sure you’ve all heard about a little show called The Handmaid’s Tale, but have you checked out SBS On Demand (and Hulu) stablemate Harlots? If not, you need this much funnier, far less traumatic (though not entirely without tears) take on undaunted women smashing the violence of the patriarchy (and occasionally each other) in your life. Here’s why:

A juicy central premise

Set in Soho, 1763, a title card opens this UK/US co-production announcing that, with Georgian-era London booming, one in five women carve their corner in the oldest profession in the world. Focused on two warring brothels, Harlots gloriously skewers the hypocrisy of sneering aristocrats and a legal system that’s trying to shut them down, while half the lords and judges are their regular customers, or “culls”.

And then there’s the wildly twisting, gloriously back-stabbing plot that regularly upends the status quo like a drunken sailor tipped into the sea.

Samantha Morton versus Lesley Manville

Class warfare takes a deliciously bawdy turn with the camp fantastic of a quivering bosom-to-bosom battle between indomitable Madams.

In one corner there’s the magnificent Samantha Morton as the common as muck Margaret Wells, upping sticks from a grotty part of town to the slightly less grotty Soho with her oldest daughter and best working girl Charlotte (Downton Abbey’s Lady Sybil Branson) and her younger, virginal sister Lucy (Eloise Smyth).

Then there’s the perma-arched eyebrow, powdered face and frilly wig of Phantom Thread’s Lesley Manville as wicked class traitor Lydia Quigley. A would-be hoity toit working a Marie Antoinette vibe, she has airs and graces far above her actual station and cunning wiles to keep her corner.

Their furious fight over the same turf, each with a will to not only survive but thrive, is a gob-smacking marvel to behold. While we’re mostly on Margaret’s side, no one has the moral high ground. With physical and emotional collateral damage left, right and centre, you’ll find yourself musing what price success in this hardscrabble world?

Women on top

If you’re worried this could all fall into sleazy male gaze territory, a la Game of Thrones, panic not. Harlots is driven by an all-female power team headed up by co-creators Moira Buffini (who adapted the Jane Eyre screenplay for Cary Joji Fukunaga) and Alison Newman, who British soap fans might recognise as DI Samantha Keeble from EastEnders. Though there’s copious amounts of sex, it’s never leery and rarely even nude. Way too many layers for that, and central heating wasn’t invented yet. Brrrr.

Unlike Handmaid’s, every single episode is written and directed by women. The majority of the cast is female too, with stand-out performances including Holli Dempsey as house-bouncing troublemaker Emily Lacey, and Call the Midwife’s Dorothy Atkinson as Florence, a street preacher railing against fallen ladies, but not too pious to pocket Lydia’s corrupt coin. Also look out for The Leftovers’ Liv Tyler turning up with a dark secret in tow as Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam from season 2.

The smattering of onscreen men are kept firmly in their service, including Penny Dreadful’s Danny Sapani as Margaret’s devoted partner and British black man William North, and Chernobyl’s Douggie McMeekin as Lydia’s gormless but kind-hearted son Charles.

Sexual-diversity positive

Driven by the women who throw in their lot with Margaret or Lydia, swap sides or strike off on their own, Harlots is both a resoundingly sex-positive soap opera and a brilliant showcase for best of British casting that’s a good deal less beige than the monotonous norm.

Pippa Bennett-Warner works a fantastic American accent and one of the series’ best storylines as Harriet Lennox. A former plantation slave who has found hard-won freedom in a loving relationship with a kindly British lord, that respite is cruelly snatched away.

Rosalind Eleazar is top-notch in another layered role exploring the flip side of racial privilege. She plays Violet Cross, a black sex worker whose situation changes dramatically. Wryly noting, after a spell behind bars, that the way out presented is just another form of imprisonment, she’s also at the centre of one of the show’s fab queer storylines.

Speaking of which, Kate Fleetwood (Victoria’s Princess Feodora) rules as Nancy Birch. A decidedly queer, tricorn-hatted force to be reckoned with, she has been a firm ally of Margaret’s since they both worked for Lydia when they were girls. Always ready to take the fight to the blokes, she knows her way around a bondage session.

London-born British-Turkish actor Josef Altin (Game of Thrones’ Pypar) is also fun as the brilliantly named gay sex worker or “molly boy” and snoop-for-hire Prince Rasselas. In a welcome strike against ableism, dwarf actor Francesca Mills, a droid puppeteer in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, plays Cherry, one of our favourite working girls who always has her eye on which side works best to her advantage. 

Swears and dresses

The next best thing about this brilliant show’s incandescent cast is the fabulous threads they get to wear. Costume designers Edward K. Gibbon, Richard Cooke and Charlotte Mitchell excel in swathing Harlots’ double-dealing girls in glorious get-ups, from gilt brocade gowns to Nancy’s dandy highwayman look.

Never judge a book by its cover, because even the most elegant styles are regularly upstaged by the rapid-fire of snort-inducingly wild profanities that would make The Thick of It’s potty-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker blush.

From septic c*nt to cockish moll, nasty slit to wh*re pipe and f*ckstress, it’s a rude hoot a minute. Never more so than when venom’s spat backwards and forwards between a fuming Margaret and Lydia, desperate to get in a mortally wounding last word. Even better, in a true testament to the research that goes into the show, the vast majority of these colourful cusses are period-appropriate, and ripe for rancid reclamation.

A complete box set of Harlots - seasons 1, 2 and season 3 - is now available to stream at SBS On Demand

Start from the beginning

Season 3 premiere episode 

Follow the author here: @SARussellwords

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