The moment I fell in love with Harlots, ITV Encore’s raucous Georgian period drama which comes to an end this evening, came midway through the second episode when dying whore Mary Cooper staggered into brothel madam Margaret Wells’ kitchen and announced: “I want more gin. I want laudanum. I want five pounds and I want a roast chicken.”
Not only was it an eminently sensible list of demands if you’re being kept captive at a brothel for blackmail purposes, but it highlighted one of Harlots’ great strengths: this is a show that cherishes its dialogue and ensures every episode contains a number of sharply polished gems.
Written by playwright Moira Buffini with former Footballers’ Wives actor Alison Newman, Harlots was inspired by historian Hallie Rubenhold’s wonderful book on prostitution in Georgian England, The Covent Garden Ladies. Like Rubenhold’s book, the show revels in unpicking the dirt and sleaze of the period while also examining the reality of life for the women on Harris’s infamous List.
At its centre is Margaret Wells (a wonderful Samantha Morton throwing everything she has at the part), a former country girl sold into prostitution who survived to build her own brothel and now dreams of expansion. Margaret has two shining assets – her daughters. The oldest, Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay, clearly relishing the chance to play a bad girl with good intentions) has learned to play the game with style, building a name for herself as “the finest whore in London”. The youngest, Lucy (Eloise Smyth), has been cosseted by her mother, her virginity a prize only the wealthiest of men shall claim.
The auctioning of Lucy’s virginity to facilitate her mother’s move to Soho’s Greek Street formed the central plot of the opening episode, and from that single event has spun an addictive story of betrayal, desire, the cost of love and, most importantly, the battle to survive in a dirty world where cold hard coin speaks loudest of all. For while we don’t doubt that Margaret loves her daughters, that she would do anything – lie, cheat, even kill – for them, they are also living embodiments of financial worth.
“She didn’t wield the knife but she forced your legs open for any letch with a fortune,” announced Charlotte to Lucy in last week’s penultimate episode, and she was right. Margaret might adore her youngest but she still served her up to Hugh Skinner’s foppish lord, justifying it because it had been done to her years earlier. The cruelty of that action was highlighted by the story of Pippa Bennett-Warner’s Harriet, a former slave motivated by her desire to save her two children, who have been snatched by her late master-turned-husband’s son. Harriet too would do anything for her children, but in contrast to the brothel madam, she will sacrifice only herself to attain her desire.
Both stories are bleakly honest about the way the world they live in judges and discards women like Harriet and Margaret, and it’s here that Buffini and Newman’s talent for dialogue truly comes into play. They leaven even the darkest moments with witty one-liners and insults, painting a picture of an 18th-century London that, while depressing, is also vivid and teeming with life. “She feeds on vengeance like maggots on a corpse,” proclaimed wonderfully named dominatrix Nancy Birch about villain Lydia Quigley last week, while Madame Quigley let fly with a number of choice insults, of which my favourite was her proclamation to young informant Prince Rasselas that he was looking “as gaunt as a Newgate beggar.”
Dialogue this ripe only works with the cast to enjoy it, and Harlots is stuffed to its overflowing bosoms with fine performances from Holli Dempsey’s sharp-tongued, permanently on the make Emily Lacey to Lesley Manville’s magnificently rapacious Lydia. There are also lovely supporting acts from Bronwyn James as the good-natured Fanny and Rosalind Eleazar as the lovestruck Violet, while Kate Fleetwood has a ball as Nancy Birch, forever narrowing her eyes and imagining giving hapless customers a good thrashing.
Despite its dark subject matter, Harlots is great fun. It’s a gloriously over-the-top frothy confection of a show, full of people spitting insults before being dragged off to jail. But it works because you empathise with the characters, even at their worst. Everyone in this dank corner of London has lost something in their grubby battle to survive, from the blind Florence Scanwell, once an infamous prostitute and now a puritan preacher of hellfire and damnation, to the gaudy Charlotte, who lies to her clients for a living and to herself to get through the day. If Taboo(Harlots’ grunting masculine counterpart) took Georgian England and gave it a weird spin, channelling Ken Russell in its grimy world where anything goes, Harlots gives us the darker flip-side of a Georgette Heyer novel – a society where dashing rakes are revealed as sneering aristocrats, taking sex without care. These heroines aren’t smart young women of The Ton, but instead the women those rakes see on the side.
Most interestingly of all, Harlots celebrates the forgotten ladies of Harris’s List, allowing them to move from the shadowy alleyways to centre stage. In doing so, it gives us a period drama that truly concentrates on women’s stories. Male cast members are used sparingly – they stand on the sidelines, make occasional declarations of love or try, often ineffectually, to save the day. They behave, in other words, as female characters have done in dramas for decades while the women snaffle all the best lines.
It works, and expertly so, because, unlike Sky’s smooth-surfaced Jamestown, aka Downton heads west, Buffini and Newman give us a fully realised, filthy and believable world, which also happens to be hugely entertaining to watch. It’s just a shame that instead of shining a spotlight on this engaging tale, ITV have hidden it away on Encore. Here’s hoping for a second series that gives this wicked pleasure the audience it deserves.
The finale of Harlots airs tonight on ITV Encore at 10pm. Series one is available on DVD and download from 5 June.