“I am sunk in lust and lechery. What is the cost of my soul?” “Five shillings.” Thats the sound of business being conducted on the streets of 18th-century London – and in Harlots, business is booming.
The STARZ series doesn’t fail to live up to its title: it’s a brazen affair, one that broaches its subject matter head-on. The business is primarily conducted by two women: Margaret Wells (Samatha Morton) and Lydia Quill (Lesley Manville). The former is a lower-class brothel keeper, fighting to climb the social chain and protect her girls. The latter has her own collection of courtesans, but is at the top of the ladder already – or as far up that ladder one can go (her girls can all talk about culture and poetry) – and doesn’t plan on letting Margaret get a leg up any time soon.
Morton is marvellous as the embattled entrepreneur, struggling with the moral dilemma of saving up for a new house where they can improve their living conditions, while simultaneously needing to earn as much as possible to make it happen: in the opening episodes, the latest decision she has to wrestle with is whether to sell her youngest daughter’s virginity to the highest bidder in an attempt to break a chain that she’s also perpetuating.
It’s that‘s kind of complex detail that makes Harlots such a gripping – and often moving – watch, as it digs beneath the bawdy surface to examine the harsh realities for sex workers in the UK capital. Even Quigley, whose life appears to be sorted, has to face such uncomfortable ideas, although she hides them under a bold smile and a contempt for almost anyone and anything else.
The sex, too, is treated more than just a raunchy spectacle for TV audiences – the show is suitable only for those of a certain disposition (don’t watch this with kids or grandparents), but it’s less about intercourse and more about the interplay of power, between two rival factions, between workers and employers, between men and women.
There’s a distinct lack of male gaze here that brings a refreshing air to it all – it’s not about objectifying, but about highlighting the brief moments where the women come out on top in an unequal society. Hugh Skinner, for example, is a scene-stealing joy as rising politician Sir George, who is besotted with Margaret’s eldest daughter, Charlotte (the delightfully entertaining Jessica Brown Findlay). A moment when he compares her to a pineapple is laugh-out-loud funny, but the scene doesn’t lose sight of the fact that he’s trying to buy an exclusive contract with her that would essentially make her his property – a notion that’s presented both as a way for Charlotte to stay safe and off the streets and something that’s fundamentally wrong. “Money is a woman’s only power in this world,” reasons Margaret.
While the more serious side of the show brings a welcome substance, though, so much of the fun of watching Harlots is simply enjoying the whip-smart dialogue and fast-paced plotting. Witty quips are fired across rooms almost as fast as the subplots turn on their head, and it’s all dispatched by a cast in brilliant costumes and glorious wigs. At the heart of it all are Morton and Manville (unrecognisable from her turn in BBC’s gently profound Mum), who trade barbed insults like Malcolm Tucker’s step-sisters – it’s a pleasure to see a TV show, regardless of subject matter, that gives such prominence to two middle-aged women and allows them to drive the narrative. If that sounds like your kind of night in, Harlots is well worth checking out.
Harlots: Season 1 to 3 is available to watch online in the UK on STARZPLAY, a streaming service that costs £4.99 a month. The platform is available on Virgin Media On Demand or through Amazon Prime Video Channels, both as an add-on subscription to your existing account.
Where can I watch Harlots online on pay-per-view VOD?