Harlots is a bodice-ripping extravaganza, livening up the Georgian-era; so why is it being hidden away on ITV Encore?


There’s a sniff of Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette in Harlots; the prostitutes are decked out in all the colours of debauchery with slick red lips and pink stockings; the soundtrack is a pulsing beat more suited to the club scene than the mud-soaked back streets of London. There’s enough heaving bosoms on display to make Playboy seem amateurish, but don’t let the title or moaning put you off. This is really something very good.

When a show boasts the credentials of both Lesley Manville and Samantha Morton, you know you’re on to a winner. Morton’s Margaret Wells is the heart of the show, a woman raised on the streets and now running her own brothel. She’s got ‘tart-with-a-heart’ written all over her, but she’s a savvy businesswoman too and begins the story hoping to upgrade to the more fashionable Greek Street in Soho.

Lydia Quigley (Manville) plans to thwart the move and sting the Wells family; they appear sworn enemies but we don’t yet know why. Manville has been a favourite for many years and it’s good to see her playing the cold, cruel Quigley who, in contrast to Wells’ motherly approach, keeps her girls in debt and reliant upon her.

This is the second time I’ve reviewed Morton in only a matter of a months and her character here couldn’t be further away from Ethel Christie. Whereas she played second fiddle somewhat to Tim Roth, here she is centre stage and commands attention every time she’s on screen. In small part due to the frankly huge cleavage on display – I couldn’t look away for fear something might pop out.

If nothing else, I’ve developed an entire new vocabulary for the labeling of female genitalia and learnt a bit more about the sex industry in 1763. The opening credits tell us ‘One in five women makes a living selling sex’ and through Charlotte Wells (Jessica Brown Findlay), we see how prostitution could be fashionable and profitable. She is currently residing with Sir George Howard, but his determination to become her ‘keeper’ and have her as one of his possessions doesn’t seem to sit easy.

If her mother’s the cliché madam then her daughter is the cliché bad girl intent on ruining everything good. Her younger sister, Lucy, has the great prize of her virginity up for grabs, something that might unnerve the faint at heart, but I guess growing up in a brothel kinda prepares you for what lies ahead.

Of course nothing’s perfect. The girls all have pearly white teeth and, so far, there’s no unpleasant clients giving them hell. In fact, it’s hard to believe they have anything to complain about given the cushy life they are presented as living. Historically, this tale of Georgian-England prostitutes might miss the mark but the storytelling is decent and there’s a fast-packed pace which I’ve come to enjoy in TV dramas.

My only question is why something as good as this, (given the lack of quality on mainstream channels at the moment) has been pushed off to lurk on ITV Encore like some naughty little cousin. Go sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done – and one of the girls will be in to spank you in a second.


- Aired on ITV Encore, March 27 2017 at 22:00.