The title sequence imposes animated cut-out figures from William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress (1731) on top of a series of luridly covered female nudes. Moll Hackabout’s syphilis scars are paired with infectious music. The opening to each episode begins with the show’s title, Harlots, bold and central between two fluorescent pink spread legs. Although the audience is looking inwards towards the disembodied legs, the eroticising male gaze is disrupted by the allusion to childbirth. Rather than being a display of sexual eroticism, it seems as though these bodiless limbs are birthing Harlots. This immediately introduces viewers to what Alison Owen, the producer, has called “the whore’s eye view” where titillation is disrupted by real and human stories. Harlots shows the complexities of the sex industry in eighteenth century London with a focus on the female gaze and female struggles. The first season of Harlots was defined by its glamour, scandal, murder, and sex. The finale had left viewers, and 1760s London, reeling and with plenty of questions. The premier of the second season works extremely hard to answer these questions and tie all of the different strands of the narrative together in a cohesive way. Series two opens with the ‘meteor of the hour’, Charlotte Wells (played by Jessica Brown Findlay). Charlotte had left her mother’s up and coming brothel on Greek Street for the sanctuary offered by Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) and Golden Square. While audiences know that this is part of Charlotte’s wider plan to seek revenge on Lydia, Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) believes that her eldest daughter has abandoned her in favour of the woman who bought Margaret for a pair of shoes when she was just ten years old. While the first season of Harlots focussed on the rivalry between the two bawds, Margaret and Lydia, the focus of the second season shifts slightly. Although this conflict is far from resolved, the show begins to confront complex issues such as systematic misogyny and classism.
With a new Justice, Josiah Hunt (Sebastian Armesto), comes a new face to represent morality within London beyond the pious mother and daughter pairing of the Scanwells. However, this only lasts one episode before Justice Hunt is shown how the law fails women and the poor. This injustice is highlighted in an incredibly emotive scene in season two’s second episode where Nancy Birch (Kate Fleetwood) is publicly flogged for protesting the magistrate’s refusal to condemn the man who murdered Kitty. Season two explores and destroys the notion that the lives of the upper-class elite matter more than the lives of London’s poor. The chasm between the wealthy and those living in poverty becomes wider with each episode. It seems as though the two Wells daughters, Charlotte and Lucy (Eloise Smyth), are the only ones who can cross these boundaries and exist in each world. Their standing in the higher echelons of fashionable society is delicate at best and their presence is often uncomfortable and incongruous in these settings. Charlotte forms an alliance, and later a romance, with Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam, sister to the Marquess of Blayne, to take down Lydia Quigley. Lydia had been extorting Lady Isabella for money – even the wealthy are vulnerable to becoming victims in her trade of secrets and blackmail.
The show was inspired by Hallie Rubenhold’s research on prostitution in London and the first season draws from the bawdy pamphlet Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies to create its rich cast of sex workers. As a consequence, the cast is effortlessly diverse. The hilarious Cherry Dorrington (Francesca Miles) is a mix between historical sex-workers Jenny Dorrington and Cherry Cole. She is a little person but her disability does not define her personality or her character development. She is not the only disabled character in the show as the deeply religious Florence Scanwell (Dorothy Atkinson) is blind; both physically, and metaphorically to her daughter’s romantic affair with a black sex-worker. Harlots has dealt with race in a consistently sensitive manner throughout the seasons. In the later seasons race becomes increasingly politicised as William North (Danny Sapani) writes political tracts and organises rallies to protest the kidnapping of black Londoners where they are being transported as slaves back to America.
Season two presents a much more cohesive and driven plot than the show’s first season. However, season three undoes a lot of this good work . The finale of the second season completely dismantled the empires of both Margaret Wells and Lydia Quigley but season three goes far beyond what seems reasonable or realistic to bring both bawds back to London. Season two ends with Margaret escaping the hangman’s noose after confessing to the murder of Sir George Howard, and yet she cannot stay away from her family. Margaret escapes execution and exile and returns to her children and her brothel in London in a completely unnecessary display of her own ego. Her return increases tensions when the plot was advancing and characters were developing into unique storylines without her presence. Likewise season two Lydia is institutionalised in Bedlam by her only male relative. Yet, in true Lydia fashion, in season three she is able to pull a dramatic prison break from the asylum. The scenes of the asylum are particularly difficult to view especially as the torture-like treatments are real processes that were used to treat suspected mental ill health. Some examples of these potential remedies include a spinning chair that ensures that the patient is violently ill and ice baths. Ultimately, she exploits the fact that the tending physician could be depended upon to sexually assault his patients. While season two introduced a new exorbitant level of social class in the form of the Marquis of Blayne, season three raises this even further and shows how the sex trade permeates even the highest level of sociability. Lydia Quigley’s protégé, Catherine “Kate” Bottomley (Daisy Head) competes against other sex workers for the privilege of becoming Prince Henry (Jojo Macari)’s mistress.
Harlots blends gorgeous Georgian gowns with a modern soundtrack. The loud and electric music reiterates a modern retelling of quintessential eighteenth-century stories. Harlots takes viewers from the brothels and the streets of London to debtors’ prisons, to courts, to palaces. The seamless blending of historical stories with modern liberal attitudes makes this an exciting and enjoyable watch.
Season 3 of Harlots is currently being broadcast on the BBC and both seasons are available on iPlayer.