Hulu’s Harlots is entirely told from the “whore’s eye view,” executive producer Alison Owen told TV critics today at TCA. There are “no male gazes” in the show; it is entirely about the women, looking outwards at their world. To that end, the team of producers, directors and writers is nearly entirely female, which, EP Debra Hayward said, “influenced the show in the way we wanted it to.”
Samantha Morton (The Last Panthers), Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey) and Lesley Manville (Malificent) star in Harlots, a co-production between Hulu and ITV. The eight-part drama got a straight-to-series order, airing on ITV Encore in the UK and streaming exclusively in the US on Hulu.
The series owes a debt to the 18th Century “Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies,” described by series co-creator/exec producer Moira Buffini as “a London guide to whoring.” The popular Georgian era directory, penned by patrons and pimps and published from 1757-95, describes the physical attributes and sexual proclivities of working prostitutes in London’s Covent Garden area.
One TV critic at Winter TCA 2017 in Pasadena wondered whether the women had written similar guides about their clients. Sadly not, Buffini said, but “you can sort of get under the words written by the men, because they do sometimes verbatim describe what a woman says.”
A female TV critic, noting today’s “feminists,” wondered if the female team working on the series had any “qualms about the topic” for TV, or had any internecine debates about what to dramatize.
Nope, Buffini said, explaining “it’s a show about economics as much as it is about sex workers… The economics of this world are all-consuming.”
“Nobody wants to see a timid piece of work” on this subject, Buffini insisted, though she acknowledged “we’re all motivated by things we see around us, in the world today” and are “refracting it through this prism of the past.”
Prostitution, Hayward explained, was one of few ways in which women could be socially mobile in that era. Lesley Manville suggested that one in five women in London 1763 was a prostitute, and Owen offered that the city was making as much money off the sex trade as it was off the docks.
Additionally, Owen noted, a series about this era is a great way to get around TV decency police because a lot of the period language is not on contemporary lists of banned words.
Harlots follows Margaret Wells (Morton), a mother and brothel owner, and rival madam Lydia Quigley (Manville). Margaret’s oldest daughter, Charlotte, is the city’s most coveted courtesan. Harlots is set to bow on March 29.
Harlots is written by Buffini (Jane Eyre) and based upon an original idea by Buffini and Alison Newman.