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Harlots: sex, power and money in 18th-century England

Watch these scarlet women getting to the top on their backs in Harlots, first and only on Showmax

14 August 2017 - 11:29
Eloise Smyth in Harlots
Eloise Smyth in Harlots

You can now binge-watch Harlots, starring two-time Oscar-nominee Samantha Morton (In America, Sweet and Lowdown) and 2016 and 2017 Bafta nominee Lesley Manville (River, Mum) as rival brothel owners in 18th-century England.

“So much of London was built on the profits of prostitution,” says Manville. “One in five women were prostitutes during that time. And it was happening at all levels of society.“

Jessica Brown Findlay (Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey) also stars as Morton’s eldest daughter, Charlotte, the city’s most wanted courtesan, who begins to grapple with her position in both society and her family.                 

Screenwriter Moira Buffini (Jane Eyre) was partly inspired to create Harlots by reading Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, a bestselling yearly publication describing, in very fine language, the services of London’s sex workers, from high-class courtesans to those who solicited in seedy bars and taverns. This gentleman’s guide to whoring led her to an outlaw society of women who had found a way to turn the economy of exploitation around and use it for their own benefit

“We knew instantly that we wanted to create a drama about these women from their point of view,” says Buffini. “We found them to be funny, bold and outrageous, full of wit and irreverence. It was easy to become seduced by them and their world.”

First on Showmax - Sex, revenge and cunning are everywhere in this raunchy show about an 18th century London brothel. Watch it on Showmax from 7 August: http://shw.mx/2tMHP8D.

She and her co-creator, EastEnders actress Alison Newman, took their idea to Oscar-nominated producers Alison Owen (Elizabeth, Temple Grandin) and Debra Hayward (Les Misérables, Love Actually), who loved their take on a family drama involving mothers and daughters and two warring brothels.

They then brought on Bafta-nominated directors Coky Giedroyc (The Killing, Penny Dreadful) and Jill Robertson (Last Tango in Halifax, Vera), as well as National Television Award nominee China Moo-Young (Misfits, Call the Midwife) – making Harlots a rare show completely written and directed by women.

It’s a costume drama with its teeth sunk firmly in the modern world

“We wanted to look closely at a profession that hasn’t changed in hundreds of years,” says Buffini. “It’s always been the coalface of gender politics and that’s where we wanted to put our female gaze. Our characters have a contemporary edge. It’s a costume drama with its teeth sunk firmly in the modern world.”

“It surprised me how modern it was,” says Morton. “The world for women then was brutal. It still is.”

She spells out how little has changed. “It’s similar still today: child brides. Child abuse. The legal age of consent varies in the world – in some countries it’s as young as nine. The world continues to be brutal, and the world continues to be unjust and unfair for many. And it’s how people get out of that and survive – the amazing stories of survival.”                            

At the time of writing, Harlots had a 97% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. “Think Downton Abbey meets Game of Thrones,” wrote Variety, while The Orlando Sentinel hailed it as “the most outstanding period drama debut on television since Game of Thrones”.

You can now binge-watch the complete eight-episode first season of Harlots first and only on Showmax in Africa. Watch now »

This article was paid for by Showmax.