Harlots star Jessica Brown Findlay: Using whoopie cushions in sex scenes helps “breaks the ice”

Sometimes a practical joke makes an awkward scene more fun to film

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Harlots star Jessica Brown Findlay has revealed her secret trick for making sex scenes less awkward: a tactically-placed whoopie cushion. 

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The former Downton Abbey actress plays Charlotte Wells in the new ITV Encore drama, starring as the beautiful daughter of a brothel-keeper and a London celebrity of the 1760s who is Sir George Howard’s “kept woman”. Her role, of course, involves some sex scenes. 

“I got away quite lightly. It’s always a closed set for the sex scenes. So that helps,” she says.

“And I found it was quite amusing if you put a whoopee cushion underneath someone. It breaks the ice.

“Sex scenes are massively awkward. But you can make them funny.” 

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But while many women willingly make their living from sex in this historical drama, enjoying a degree of independence as they run businesses and make their own money, Harlots also explores the darker side of the Georgian sex industry.

While brothel-keepers like Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) treat their girls with some respect, others like Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) – who runs an upmarket house – keep their prostitutes under lock and key.

Life on the streets can be harsh, and in the first episode even sympathetic character Margaret Wells decides to sell her teenage daughter Lucy (Eloise Smyth)’s virginity to the highest bidder. Not all of these scenes are suited to practical jokes and whoopie cushions. 

“There were some situations where it was a far more sombre affair and it was about setting up safe situations, and people making sure that everyone was checking in with each other,” Brown Findlay explains.

“And a lot of the time, in certain scenes people make sure that the woman’s OK but it’s also really important to check that the guy’s OK.

“So there’s a time and place for a laugh, but there is a time and place to go, ‘OK is everyone alright? What are we talking about, is everyone OK?’ Because it’s not all fun and games.”

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It might not actually be the sex, but prostitutes’ legal and social status, that will surprise 21st century viewers most.  

“If you were deemed a harlot, you had a right to property, to your own money, to your own body, to your children. They were yours, legally,” Brown Findlay explains.

“Whereas if you were married, everything that you produced, or had claim to before you were married – so money, property, your body – was legally treated and classed as your husband’s property. And so anything, he could basically do anything to it.

“And I found that really shocking and surprising, and I also found it really shocking when I looked into how long that law lasted.”

(In case you wanted to know, the principle of coverture – that a woman’s legal rights were subsumed by her husband on marriage – existed in English common law for centuries, until the Married Women’s Property Acts of the late 19th century.)

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With a female-led production team including co-creators and writers Alison Newman and Moira Buffini, executive producer Alison Carpenter and director Coky Giedroyc, Harlots puts the focus on women and their lives – very different from many other period dramas. And while prostitutes appear in other historical dramas, it is unusual to see them as the protagonists with their own stories to tell.

“History is written by the victors, and at the time, most of the stories being written down were about men by men,” Brown Findlay says.

“And as we move forward, empowerment and equality and discussions are being had. With every step forward we’re walking on pavements that were paved by other women, and to not acknowledge what’s come before in order for me be sitting here today as an independent woman who can work and have rights to my own body – people have come before me to enable that to be something that is completely normal, and that’s amazing.

“So there are so many stories to be told, and so it’s really exciting to be able to be part of one of them.”

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Eight-part period drama Harlots will premiere on Monday 27th March at 10pm on ITV Encore. It will also be available via US on demand service Hulu from 29th March.