In the crowded list of recent bodice-ripping entertainment, a new British period drama has emerged on ITV’s new subscription service, titled Harlots. Battling some garish marketing (more on that later) and another subscription charge that Netflix and Amazon users might see as excessive, it’s certainly not got the media buzz it had hoped for. Indeed, even writing about it is tricky – it’s a strange, anachronistic creature, where the best efforts of the recognisable cast are somewhat clouded by some unconventional flourishes.
The story follows two rival brothels in 18th century London, giving us a change from the now-conventional period drama setting of Victorian England by dialling the years back and expanding the makeup and hair styling opportunities that the flamboyant Georgian era brings. At least, that’s what the costuming of Harlots would have you believe, matching dark and dingy visuals with outfits that often seem to belie the living situations of some of the brothel occupants.
Madam Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) runs one of the brothels, a rough establishment in comparison to its upmarket rival in Golden Square, set up by a formidable opponent in the form of Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville, in full villain mode). Margaret has big aspirations for her establishment, as her girls check their reviews in the historically accurate directory – ‘Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies’. First in her priorities is her two daughters, popular brothel worker Charlotte (Jessica Brown-Findlay) and young teen Lucy (Eloise Smyth), whose life is still free from the obligations of the other occupants. In the first episode, that freedom becomes threatened and Margaret is left to decide what must be done to survive.
Following on from so-called ‘edgier’ period dramas such as Poldark and more importantly for this drama, Tom Hardy’s Taboo, it seems that producers of this television genre are keen to shrug off the stereotypes of stiff corsets and family friendly scenes.
Written by Moira Buffini, who was also behind 2011’s Jane Eyre, this show takes inspiration from a book on the London setting, society and era, but the characters are largely invented. As a result, we’re introduced quickly to a cast of characters who don’t remain memorable and whose backstories are generally masked for their cavalier attitude to their occupation.
This decision to shift the tone from being too dark by shifting to ridiculous scenes of comedic sex and sassy backtalk, all masked with a soundtrack approaching dubstep – well, it shouldn’t really be surprising either.
The posters for this show alone were strange, calling to mind posters for female-targeted modern shows such as Girls and clearly targeting that same younger market by releasing it online only. Still, as we see frequently in television these days, whilst scenes get edgier, only the male gaze is safe to get a decent rating – we see plenty of nakedness from the female side, but hardly anything in regards to the opposite gender.
As those tonal shifts take place, we do get a rough attempt at dealing with the difficulties of being in that situation in the period. However, for a show that presents itself as edgy, it’s clear that those behind it are playing it safe by keeping in scenes of attempted comedy. In fact, whilst watching this, it was difficult not to think fondly of The Crimson Petal and the White, a drama that not only saw characters that handle their roles with practised cynicism and humour, but also really dealt with the brutal and ugly side of the profession.
There are some bright spots in Harlots – the cast really put their all into a script that can’t match their talents, and newcomer Eloise Smyth is particularly strong, her performance ensuring that her meek character doesn’t get drowned out by her colourful surroundings. BBC drama regular Hugh Skinner plays Charlotte’s most ardent customer, portraying the same socially inept character that we’ve seen in W1A, Poldark and Fleabag. What’s interesting is that this time his character has true power and riches over others, so that man-child dynamic is now dangerous too, not just pathetic. Samantha Morton is great as well, but it would be a miracle if anyone could find a performance from her CV that wasn’t.
In the end, Harlots is fortunate for having a fantastic cast. Otherwise, it’s a difficult watch; unbalanced, with an ugly modern twist that interferes with any period detail efforts. Even tougher, the business case for putting this show on the subscription service and not on the television is difficult to agree with when you consider that Netflix and Amazon own the market already. If it gets renewed for next year, it’ll be remarkable, and that’s a pity for what could be a fascinating setting.