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In the opening minutes of Harlots, the 2017 historical drama from Britain’s ITV, Lucy Wells (played by Eloise Smyth) comes charging into the family brothel waving the new edition of Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies. With girlish delight, she proceeds to regale the prostitutes with what London’s leading sex-review guide thinks of each of them.
“Miss Fanny Lambert,” Lucy reads gaily, as a plump redheaded listens thoughtfully to her writeup. “The very thing in winter for those who love a fat, jolly girl.”
“Nancy Birch,” she continues, as the camera cuts to a masked dominatrix cracking a whip down the hall. “When flagellation is required, she acquits herself entirely to the satisfaction of the cull.”
The show is fiction, the book is not. Harris’ List was, in the words of Harlots co-creator Moira Buffini, “A Time Out guide to whores from the 1760s onwards.” It’s a sign of how massive and competitive the sex business was in Georgian England that such a guide sold a quarter-million copies and was updated yearly for decades.
At its heyday in the late 18th century, as many as 50,000 women were involved in the sex trade in London, serving customers at all price points, before Parliament somewhat reluctantly put a stop to it.
Harlots is what happened when Buffini and co-creator Alison Newman looked at this 250-year-old history through different eyes. Once seen entirely from a male point of view, the commodification and classification of female flesh is here viewed from the perspective of the women put on offer, and in some cases the women putting them on offer.
Of course, Harlots is, first and foremost, a show about sex. At first it looks like a kind of live-action version of Harris’ List. And in the beginning, as the scene above suggests, it carries on in good, randy fun, with lots of bare bottoms and rocking and moaning. The Russell Street brothel where these girls work is a bit downmarket. It’s what a youth hostel might look like if everyone dressed in Merchant Ivory costumes and kept their bedroom doors open.
Presiding over things is Elizabeth Wells, played by the marvelous Samantha Morton (whom you may recall me raving about in Longford). She runs her whorehouse with a light hand on the tiller, but she isn’t afraid to crack the whip, as when she comes upon Lucy and the girls in the back room, idly debating their Harris’ List reviews.
“I’ve got an officer out there with such a hard prickstand he can hardly walk!” she yells at Emily Lacey, her best worker. “Go and service Mr. Holland before he expires.”
Elizabeth is kinder to her two daughters, the sassy Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay) and more sensitive Lucy (Eloise Smyth). On the other hand, Mum sold Charlotte’s virginity off to the highest bidder, and she's pondering doing the same with Lucy in order to upgrade her brothel to nicer quarters on Greek Street.
So yes, there is plenty of cheerful raunchiness and eye candy, but don’t let that distract from Harlots real agenda, which is to provide dark commentary on the state of women in today's world.
That begins right about the time Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) enters the scene. Lydia runs a high-class whorehouse. Her girls speak French, play musical instruments, and screw judges and their peers for money. All the while, Lydia and her buffoonish son Charles (Douggie McMeekin) keep a close eye on them. The Quigleys ruthlessly maximize earnings by keeping their whores forever in debt, a sharecropping arrangement by which there is never quite enough money for them to stop turning tricks (an idea also powerfully explored in Season 3 of American Crime).
Lydia has a deep personal hatred for Elizabeth (which will be explained in time) and will do almost anything to keep her from moving to Greek Street, which is not far from Lydia’s lair. You could watch all of Season 1 to see how this arc unfurls, but there’s enough of a resolution at the end of Episode 4 that you can decide if you want to go further with the series or stop there.
The cast is diverse, though the pairings tend to be Eyewitness News-style, with older men and younger women. The show’s research found plenty of black working girls, so Elizabeth’s lineup includes the intriguing and devious Violet (Rosalind Eleazar). William (Danny Sapini), Elizabeth’s common-law husband and the bellman of her brothel, is also black. And if there isn’t exactly a historical analogue to Harriet Lennox (Pippa Bennett-Warner) — a former American slave who ponders joining the sex trade when her two children are sold into servitude — after a while Harlots convinces you that any scenario is possible once basic human rights are taken off the table.
As hard as things were for single women, they were arguably worse for those in bad marriages, regardless of their standing in society. To drive this point home, the aristocratic wife of Sir George Howard (loutishly played by Hugh Skinner) rides in from the country to confront her husband about his lavish spending — most of which is on Charlotte, who uncomfortably has to play hostess to Mrs. Howard while Sir George is out.
“I heard Sir George speak,” Charlotte begins awkwardly. “He was very impressive.”
“You are easily impressed,” comes the frosty retort from Mrs. Howard (Eleanor Yates). “My husband is a man-child, a fopdoodle who’s frittering away my fortune. In the eyes of the law, it is Sir George’s fortune, of course, but in reality it was gifted to me by prudent ancestors.” To which Charlotte replies, “Marriage is the worst kind of thief.”
Even in consciousness-raising scenes like this, Harlots never forgets to be soapy, witty, and entertaining, to say nothing of the copious amounts of high-rise cleavage and lowdown screwing. Yet ultimately, this is a drama about power. About men who have most of the power and women who make the most of what little they have. Violence and cruelty aren’t just dished out by the dominatrix.
In some ways this show reminds me of The Wire — specifically, the criminals like Stringer Bell, D’Angelo, and even Omar. As endearing and appealing as those characters were, they lived tragic lives that in a better world would have been too dull for drama.
Harlots is an unsettling series that should be required viewing, at the very least, by everyone watching that other Hulu series about women under the control of men. For while The Handmaid’s Tale may have some echoes in the present day, it is an allegory set in a putative future. Harlots, or a reasonable facsimile of it, really happened — and the psychological dynamics driving this show are still operative around the world, wherever women find themselves with few options.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star. Follow him on Twitter at @tvbarnagain.