The year is 1763 and London has its pants around its ankles. Harlots, ITV’s costume romp about the city’s oldest industry – the opening title tells us one in five women makes a living selling sex – comes with an enviable cast including Samantha Morton, Lesley Manville and Jessica Brown Findlay, AKA Downton’s Lady Sybil.
While on the surface there’s not much to distinguish it from shagtastic bodice-rippers gone by such as Moll Flanders and Casanova, Harlots is written and directed by women and comes with a predominantly female production team. The upshot of this is equal-opportunities nudity (for every female nipple there’s a blotchy, thrusting man-bum) and male characters who are, by and large, irretrievably thick.
The plot is built around rival London bawds, played by Morton and Manville, each of whom is trying to do over the other to maintain their respective empires. While the conniving Mrs Quigley (Manville) runs an upmarket operation, complete with fashionably attired, cultured young women who probably steam-clean their vaginas, Morton’s Margaret Wells runs a less salubrious ship, despite her best efforts. Her girls are grubby, hungry and want for a hairbrush, though they are loyal and accept their lot with a resigned shrug.
Wells is tired of dodging the law and dealing with street-level thugs and wants go up in the world – better, like Quigley, to have clergymen and lawmakers under your thumb. The mother of two daughters, Wells sells her youngest’s virginity to the highest bidder so she can shift her premises from grotty, sewage-swamped Covent Garden to a high-ceilinged townhouse in Greek Street. Cruel? No, practical. It turns out she is doing her best for her children and her own mother sold her, aged 10, for a pair of shoes. She’s making sure her girls use their assets wisely – “money is a woman’s only power in this world,” she tells her eldest Charlotte, a courtesan who refuses to sign a contract to seal her status – so they can live in the manner to which she has never been accustomed.
After Quigley throws a spanner in her upsizing plans in the shape of a God-bothering crusader and a hefty fine, Wells sets a devious plan in motion to get her revenge via a muck-spreading journalist – another cerebrally challenged man-baby – and a pox-infested prostitute. By the end of the week, she hopes, Quigley’s reputation will be in tatters.
Harlots has swagger in spades: it’s all vertiginous wigs, beauty spots the size of cigar butts and pushed-up boobs, the promise of a wardrobe malfunction pervading every shot. Morton’s cleavage is so extraordinarily, deliciously bulging, you’re tempted to stick a pin in her and watch her whiz around the room.
In all honesty, the style isn’t really matched by substance. For all the talk of female autonomy, the characters are thinly drawn and, when all is said and done, this is a show about humping. If the women aren’t being licked all over in Regency drawing rooms while draped in fresh fruit, they’re giving head in lamp-lit streets against an intrusive indie-rock soundtrack. It’s Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress meets Blackadder, the Prince George years. Harlots is fun but a feminist masterpiece it ain’t.
Harlots is on Mondays, 10pm, ITV Encore