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If you’re late to the show that Variety described as “Downton Abbey meets Game of Thrones,” Harlots follows Margaret Wells as she struggles to reconcile her roles as brothel owner and mother to daughters Charlotte and Lucy – while fighting off Lydia Quigley, a rival madam with a ruthless streak. GQ recently called Harlots “the best show you’re not watching… If you haven’t been keeping up, then you’re missing out.”
Here are six reasons why:
1. The cast features two Oscar nominees; Lady Sybil from Downton Abbey; and now Liv Tyler
Harlots’ cast includes Oscar-nominees Samantha Morton (In America, Sweet and Lowdown, The Walking Dead) and Lesley Manville (The Phantom Thread, River) as the rival brothel owners. Screen Actors Guild winner Jessica Brown Findlay (aka Lady Sybil from Downton Abbey) plays Charlotte Wells. And now another Screen Actors Guild winner Liv Tyler (aka Arwen in Lord of the Rings) has joined the cast as Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam, heiress of Blayne.
2. You’ll realise just how bad things used to be for women – and that things are improving
In Georgian England, the age of consent was 12. If a woman (or child) married, her body was considered her husband’s property, as was her actual property. Even if she inherited money, like Lady Fitzwilliam, she couldn’t control it – a male relative would keep it for her until she married, when it would pass to her husband. So perhaps it’s understandable that one in five women made a living selling sex in London in 1763; as Eloise Smyth, who plays Lucy Wells, says, “Being a prostitute was the only way for young women to make their own money and have ownership of their money.”
3. It’s a rare show entirely written, directed and produced by women
Harlots is driven by a rare all-female creative team of writers Moira Buffini (Jane Eyre) and Alison Newman; Oscar-nominated executive producers Alison Owen ((Elizabeth, Anne With An E) and Debra Hayward (Les Misérables, Love Actually), with Alison Carpenter; BAFTA-nominated lead director Coky Giedroyc (The Killing, Seven Seconds); and BAFTA-winning producer Grainne Marmion (The Borrowers, Doctor Foster).
The result? It’s been praised for its “whore’s eye view” by Vanity Fair; hailed as “one of the few shows on television to master feminist sex scenes” by Decider; and celebrated as “a much-needed break from the male gaze” by Bustle.
As Liv Tyler says, “Harlots could go in a totally different direction, I think, if it was written by a man.”
4. Georgian England was ‘very rock ‘n roll’
“The Georgians were pretty rock ‘n roll,” says Eloise Smyth, who speaks with authority on rock ‘n roll comparisons, since her dad was Cathal Smyth – Chas Smash in the British band Madness. “It was only when the Victorians came that we got that British ‘stiff upper lip’ thing. The Georgians were pretty punk and cool and had great parties, wore lavish clothing and were quite bawdy.”
Samantha Morton agrees, adding that she’d love to see the male fashion from the era make a comeback. “I love it. I really do. I think if you are a man in society today and you want to be flamboyant, it is really suppressed. Back then it didn’t affect your masculinity at all if you had a nice jacket or a bit of a heel on the shoe. That’s why I loved Prince because he did all that. Pop musicians get away with it but for men in today’s society, they go to the shops and what is there for them?”
5. Despite the dark subject matter, it’s funny and warm
As AVClub says, “Rarely has a show about such wretched people been so delightful to watch… Harlots is never as dark as it could be – and is often grimly funny – because it’s never only about the fact that the fight is unwinnable. It’s about the people you can fight beside. Even in a world held under the thumb of powerful men, family is possible. Connection is possible. You can endure.”
6. Critics love it
Harlots currently has a 96% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
As Refinery29 puts its, “The show’s premise involves a difficult balancing act. It must depict sex work without glamorizing it, deliver on a world of intrigue and power struggles without getting too bogged down in historical nitpicking, underscore these ladies’ crackling wit and joie de vivre without glossing over the very real dangers they face, all with a healthy dose of camp aided by a lavish costume budget. And good thing for us, [Harlots] delivers on all of the above. Inspired by the story of real women, Harlots is a story about sex workers, yes – but it’s also about family, female friendships, gender dynamics, and money… All in all, it’s the perfect way to escape the increasingly Handmaid’s Tale world we’re living in. Forget Gilead – Georgian London is where it’s at.”
Both Vox and The Guardian described the feminist workplace drama as “addictive,” with Vox pitching it as “what would happen if The Sopranos and Gossip Girl had filthy, complicated sex” and The Guardian calling it “TV stuffed to the heaving bosom with sex, gin and glorious insults… Expertly evokes the sleaze and virginity-auctioning of the Georgian age… A fully realised, filthy and believable world, which also happens to be hugely entertaining to watch.”
You can now binge-watch Harlots first and only on Showmax in South Africa.
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