Scouting about for something to watch in between episodes of American Gods, P and I stumbled across the Hulu/ITV Encore series, Harlots. Apparently inspired by The Covent Garden Ladies by Hallie Ruben (let’s just put that straight on the to-read list, shall we?) it is set in London in 1763 and follows the inhabitants of a brothel.
The madam of our brothel is Margaret Wells, played by Samantha Morton. She’s trying to improve the status of her brothel, her girls and herself. Meanwhile, her rival Lydia Quigley runs a more upscale brothel and is determined to crush her competitor. As the opening sequence tells us, one in five women in London at this time makes her money through some kind of sex work, so it’s not as if the competition isn’t coming from all sides.
Meanwhile, sex work is, technically illegal. Combine this with pressures from religious groups and the fact that those in power want to squeeze anything they can out of the industry and you have a challenging lifestyle to navigate. In spite of the dark themes and sometimes upsetting storylines, Harlots manages, for the most part, to keep things relatively light, entertaining, and sometimes even funny. After all, there’s nothing funnier than sex. It’s the kind of period costume drama that’s actually fun – and this is from someone who can’t be bothered with Downton.
There are themes that might have allowed it to say something political here, but the show tends to get a bit shy. It passes Bechdel comfortably and manages to show prostitutes in a fair enough light. It shows the difficulties presented by being black in 1763, deals with class issues, disease and people trafficking and manages it all respectfully, but doesn’t push quite as far as it could.
Still, to give the creators their credit, presumably they’d quite like to get to make a second season. In 2017 I should probably be more impressed with a show that manages all of the above. I enjoyed watching it. It was a fun, bright, and slightly naughty delight. Oh, and the soundtrack ain’t bad either.