We hear from actresses Samantha Morton and Lesley Manville about Showmax’s latest drama Harlots.
Hailed as Downton Abbey meets Game of Thrones, this series is one to watch! It follows the story of a rivalry between two brothel owners in 18th century England – think high-class courtesans, hair powder, and history!
Two-time Oscar-nominee Samantha Morton (Rillington Place, In America) stars as brothel-owner Margaret Wells, and BAFTA-nominee Lesley Manville (River, Mum) is Lydia Quigley, Margaret’s rival. The tale is set in 18th century England, where one in five women made their living selling sex.
“Lydia Quigley is my evil ex-boss,” says Samantha. “My character Margaret hates her and all she stands for. She doesn’t want anything to do with her. However, the history they share means that on some strange level there’s also love.”
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The two brothel owners cater for very different markets. “Lydia Quigley is operating at the highest end,” says Lesley Manville, who plays Lydia. “She runs a brothel for royalty, aristocracy, Lords and so on. When you see how the girls in Lydia’s house look, it’s quite beautiful. They look like Gainsborough paintings. Compared to Margaret Wells’s girls and the girls working on the streets, it’s a very different scenario.”
Before taking the role, Lesley did her own research on the period, which included reading a bestseller from that time, Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. “It’s an extraordinary Yellow Pages of the prostitutes working in Covent Garden. A fascinating read.”
In her research, Lesley was struck by the size and impact of the industry. “You really can’t ignore what an industry this was. It was huge. Streets in Soho were built so they could be brothel houses… So much of London was built on the profits of prostitution.”
One of the things that surprised her during her research was that it wasn’t only desperation that led women to become prostitutes. “Oddly enough, there were also stories of well-to-do middle-class ladies who were in desperately boring marriages. They would come up to London for the day and just prostitute themselves. Not for the money but just to have a bit of fun. Then they’d go home back to the suburbs or wherever they lived.
“I found that extraordinary because that says a lot about marriages. Marriages weren’t primarily made for love. They were made for convenience or status. People weren’t getting married because they had fallen in love and genuinely wanted to be together, so there were an awful lot of boring marriages around.”
Margaret introduced her eldest daughter, Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay from Downton Abbey), to the trade at age 12, the legal age of consent then. “It’s a trade, let’s not forget that,” says Samantha. “It’s easy to look at prostitution as a ‘last resort’ but that’s not how some working girls see it. If you know a trade, why not pass it on to loved ones?”
All eight episodes were written and directed exclusively by women.
“Harlots isn’t how you would imagine it… You can’t have a series that deals with such serious subject matter without humour. We’re showing something that was a reality for those women. And the reality is that, yes, you may be doing unpleasant and dark things and going to bad places, but when you have a group of women working together, there’s going to be love and humour and support and all of the things women generally gravitate towards.”
Samantha adds, “Harlots feels timeless and very original. Yet also familiar, like Dickens, only now with a twist.”
Binge-watch Harlots on showmax.com
Check out the trailer for Harlots season 1 below:
Images courtesy of ITV