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You can now binge-watch the critically acclaimed, addictive, saucy period drama 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, first and only on Showmax.
“So much of London was built on the profits of prostitution,” says Lesley. “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 Samantha 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 Moira. “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.”
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.
“We wanted to look closely at a profession that hasn’t changed in hundreds of years,” says Moira. “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 Samantha. “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, with some countries 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.”
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