Take the juicy plotting of Downton Abbey, add the reflection on timeless themes and attention to historical detail of Mad Men, top it all off with the unbridled sexiness of Game of Thrones, and you’ve got an idea of what Harlots has to offer. The new series, which arrives on Hulu today, takes us inside the sex trade of 18th-century London, where business is booming, sex is a pathway to power and brothels are a family affair.
Here’s how Hulu describes the plot: “Based on the stories of real women, the series follows Margaret Wells and her daughters as she struggles to reconcile her roles as mother and brothel owner. When her business comes under attack from Lydia Quigley, a rival madam with a ruthless streak, Margaret will fight back, even if it means putting her family at risk.”
We spoke to the show’s creators, Moira Buffini and Alison Newman, about the origins of the series, making sex scenes abut more than just sex and the surprisingly enlightened sex lives of 18th-century Londoners.
What led to the idea to make the show’s leads a family?
MOIRA BUFFINI: This is the thing that makes it so accessible. Harlots is a first and foremost a family workplace drama and has all of those tensions. It’s hard running any kind of family business, but for Margaret Wells the workplace is her home and her home is a brothel.
ALISON NEWMAN: Prostitution was often a family business. If a woman in the trade had daughters, they would automatically be seen by society as “tainted” and unfit for marriage. They would have no choice but to join the business. It made sense to add this dynamic to the show.
Women working in film and television still have to fight for even the appearance of hiring equity, but your show is one of a growing group of series—Jessica Jones and Broad City come to mind—where women are the dominant creative force. Was that built in from the beginning?
BUFFINI: At first, we didn’t have a mission statement other than wanting to see women’s stories on screen—women of different ages, social classes and ethnicities driving the action. We took our idea to [executive producer] Alison Owen because I had worked with her twice before and I knew she’d totally get what we wanted to do. She and Debra Hayward are two of the most respected film producers in the UK, with an amazing track record. As the team expanded, we found that women writers were responding incredibly well to the material, so the writer’s room became female. And it was a positive decision to look for female directors. We felt very strongly that it would be a good thing to see this world through female eyes. Our three directors, led by Coky Giedroyc, certainly gave us the female gaze.
NEWMAN: It evolved. It was, however, definitely a conscious decision to create a huge cast of excellent character parts for women. I’m very happy to be part of this growing trend!
The show is billed as something inspired by the lives of real women. Is anything in the series taken from very specific women and their lives, or is it more general to the period you’re fictionalizing?
BUFFINI: All of our characters are fictional, but our research of the major courtesans and brothel-keepers of the time has found its way under their skin. Publications such as Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, a yearly review guide of London’s prostitutes, and Nocturnal Revels, two action-packed volumes of gossip, smut and popular stories from the brothels of the day, were really inspiring to us. Our characters have elements of the historical women in them but also they also have elements of women we know in real life; career women, family women. We kept asking ourselves the question, “What would our own lives have been like in this era?”
I don’t think viewers would be surprised to learn of serious competition in the sex trade in 18th century London, but I do think some might be surprised at how deep the animosity goes in this show, complete with a kind of tabloid gossip. How much of that is fictionalized and how much of it is historical?
BUFFINI: The press interest in courtesans and brothels is absolutely real. The courtesans were superstars; real celebrities, feted wherever they went, both beloved and notorious. They inspired fashion, artists and, because all actresses were harlots, playwrights and composers too. I’m pretty certain there was rivalry between brothels but our warring brothels are a fictional starting point. We knew we’d find drama. Look no further than Romeo and Juliet: Two warring houses equals plot.
NEWMAN: This was a ruthless, competitive business. In some parts of London, each street might have at least one brothel. Brothel keepers would have to fight to survive.
In developing the show, was there anything you didn’t get to do that you really wish you could’ve included?
BUFFINI: Our restrictions were only budgetary. No citywide riots or huge firework parties on the Thames—yet. And we did have the swear police, which made us ripen the language in a very Georgian way. Thematically, we explored everything we wanted to in our first series and felt very well supported in doing so.
NEWMAN: There was a version of Episode 1 which had more traditional/modern swear words. We were asked to remove most of them and the result was brilliant. Replacing them with Georgian language made the world feel more authentic and boisterous.
It’s hard running any kind of family business, but for Margaret Wells the workplace is her home and her home is a brothel.
The pop score chosen for the series really drives the pacing and makes the show feel sexier. Did you ever consider anything more traditionally orchestral?
BUFFINI: We listened to a great deal of eighteenth-century music when we were writing and researching, but we had a strong idea from the start that we wanted the music to form a bridge between the past and the present. Costume drama at best is only a filter through which to explore this present world, and Harlots feels very contemporary to me. I think our composer Rael Jones has done a fantastic job.
NEWMAN: We wanted the score to reflect the Georgian people and era. They were fast, noisy and colourful and very modern. This was the birth of the modern age. I love how the score works with this, and the occasional bit of traditional music in a tavern or the opera.
You obviously place some very potent themes—sexism, classism, fragile masculinity, sex as currency—at the forefront of the show, but at the same time it really works as a fun, breezy piece of entertainment. Was it tough nailing that balance?
BUFFINI: Early on, a couple of the channels we pitched the show to didn’t understand how or why we felt it could be funny. The first scenes I wrote were full of humor, and I think they were expecting our depiction of sex workers to be more miserablist. The moments of comedy in Harlots are very important to us. The humor of the characters is both weapon and shield to them. It allows you to shine a light into some very dark places.
NEWMAN: The Georgians were very witty, and we wanted to reflect that in the show. These people have difficult lives and, to some extent, their humor carries them through. We also didn’t want to go down the traditional route of “misery porn” with these stories. They didn’t feel sorry for themselves; why should we?
What’s the strangest piece of sex history you came across in your research? What’s the most forward thinking thing about sex and sex work at the time that you came across?
BUFFINI: Actually, it’s Alison N. who spent most time in the British Library rare books room with those special gloves on. When I was writing, I’d ask her any number of questions—for example “How do you remake a virgin?” She discovered various unguents that made your vaginal muscles tighten, a sponge soaked in pigeon’s blood and, best of all, an ingenious device whereby a salmon’s bladder filled with blood was put, by the wannabe virgin, into her vagina to fool her john into thinking he’d broken her hymen. None of these, alas, made it into the show.
The Georgians were far more liberal than the Victorians. They were very open and earthy in their attitude to sex. The Victorians repressed it all. The sex trade went underground and I think conditions for sex workers became even worse.
NEWMAN: What surprised me most was how open the trade was then. Swarms of girls would mill about on the streets touting for trade, and Covent Garden was full of taverns with “posture molls"—18th Century strippers—performing. It was considered an Englishman’s right to go whoring, and they did! I particularly loved the 18th-century woman who had a very successful sex shop off the Strand selling "cundums"—very primitive re-useable condoms, made from sheep gut—as well as ivory dildos and pornography. I sometimes had to stop myself from roaring with laughter in the hallowed halls of the British Library.
Were there any personal hang-ups you had about sex and sex work that were remedied in the making of the show?
BUFFINI: Neither of us have ever been judgmental about sex workers, and both of us have known people personally who have worked in the trade; ordinary people doing a difficult job that takes its toll on family life. Some sex workers have had choice in their profession; some have had no choice. I’m respectful of the former and outraged on behalf of the latter. One of the reasons that I’m glad to be writing this for Playboy is that I think maybe sex workers read it. I really hope they like our show.
NEWMAN: I have huge admiration for women who work in the sex industry. It’s a difficult and, sometimes, dangerous job. I struggle to understand why an industry which is never going to stop isn’t more closely regulated worldwide for the safety of the women involved. It’s outrageous.
I struggle to understand why an industry which is never going to stop isn’t more closely regulated worldwide for the safety of the women involved.
What’s one thing TV gets wrong about sex, and do you think your show gets it right?
BUFFINI: I don’t want to slag off anyone else’s show, but a sex scene in Harlots is always about something other than the sex. It’s a connection, a transaction, a manipulation, a skirmish, a confrontation, a consummation, a humiliation; it can be funny or brutal, passionate, revelatory, but it’s never just a place where the drama stops and naked or semi-clad actors fill a big empty space by pretending to shag. I find that pretty excruciating.
NEWMAN: Yes, this was very important to us: If the sex didn’t serve story or character, it had no place in our show.
And finally, imagine the most straight-laced, conservative, easily scandalized viewer on the planet, and they just happen to catch an episode of your show. What do you hope they learn from it?
BUFFINI: Our harlots live in a very moral universe. Most of them believe in God. They fear damnation far more than we do. They have a very strong sense of sin and they know that one of the biggest sins is hypocrisy. They want to be loved by God and respected by mankind. They know they’re living in a corrupt world and they all have a difficult relationship with that. Some have cut themselves off emotionally. Others find ways of being good that are genuinely heartfelt and surprising. Most of all, they are rounded, complex human beings living in a brutal economy. That’s the really shocking thing about Harlots for me: how little power these women are given by society, how hard it is for them to make a good life for themselves and their dependents. I hope those who watch expecting to be either scandalized or titillated find themselves drawn in by the honest depiction of humanity in our world.
NEWMAN: I think some people will be surprised that Harlots isn’t a piece of titillating, exploitative entertainment. By telling the stories from the point of view of these women, we’re shining a light on the society they live in. They were survivors. I hope we’ve done them justice.