TV Review: Harlots Series 1

The best TV show you haven’t heard about? Harlots just might be it!

“When the time comes, I hope your quim splits”

I suppose that it is good that we have so many more options for good television to be made these days. The flipside to that is that it can be harder to keep track of it all. Harlots is fricking fantastic, a hugely enjoyable and high quality drama but airing on ITV Encore (and Hulu in the US),  it has languished in the doldrums of the unfairly unheralded.

A glance at the castlist shows you how much of a waste this is. Samantha Morton and Lesley Manville at the head, Jessica Brown Findlay, Hugh Skinner and Dorothy Atkinson among the supporting, Fenella Woolgar, Danny Sapani and Kate Fleetwood popping up now and again too. This is luxury stuff and yet criminally few know about it.

Harlots was created by Alison Newman and Moira Buffini, based on novel The Covent Garden Ladies by Hallie Rubenhold, and is set in 1763 London where it is said that one in five women make a living selling sex. Margaret Wells has taken inspiration from her former madam Lydia Quigley to set up her own brothel and is determined to make it a high class affair, putting these two fierce women in direct competition. 

But they’ve not just got each other to worry about. Religious reformers are trying to enforce a new morality, while those in indulge in the darker aspects of human nature react by swinging the pendulum even further the other way, and it is the working girls who end up suffering the most. From corrupt justices to jealous husbands, men are mostly terrible and it takes all their wits to survive them.

Thankfully, Newman and Buffini have created a carousel of fully-rounded characters to do just that. Morton and Manville are inspired casting as the madams who are as manipulative as they are motherly, practical to the end. Findlay’s charismatic Charlotte is as close as we get to a lead, and there’s impressive work from Pippa Bennett-Warner as a woman who finds some kind of self-ratification in pulling through the most horrendous of times. Highly recommended.

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