The year is 1763, and the sex trade is booming in Georgian London. Despite a backlash from religious zealots and heavy fines on offenders, one in five women earn their living from the sex trade, there's a brothel on every corner and there is even a Yellow Pages-style directory of prostitutes titled Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies featuring very explicit reviews and recommendations.
In this setting we meet brothel keeper Margaret Wells and her daughters, as well as nasty rival madam Lydia Quigley. Expect humour, family drama – and also exploitation and manipulation – as Harlots unfolds on ITV Encore and Hulu.
When is Harlots on ITV?
Eight-part period drama Harlots will premiere on Monday 27th March at 10pm on ITV Encore. It will also be available via American video on demand service Hulu from 29th March.
Who is starring in Harlots?
Jessica Brown Findlay – Charlotte Wells
Who does she play? Charlotte is the eldest daughter of Margaret Wells, who runs a popular middle-class brothel. It may surprise many to see that, despite her roots, this beautiful and fashionable young woman is a London celebrity – but there are lots of surprises when you look more closely at the Georgian sex industry. Ambitious Margaret has tried to set her up with "keepers" (men who would take ownership of a woman, giving them some legal and financial security) but Charlotte herself is a troublemaker. Fiery and rebellious with a self-destructive streak, she cannot bear the possessiveness of her current keeper Sir George Howard.
Where have I seen her before? Even after all these years, Jessica Brown Findlay is still followed around by the role that made her a household name: Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey. But she has been working hard to avoid being typecast, with roles in The Outcast, The Riot Club, Jamaica Inn, Labyrinth and Victor Frankenstein. She has also been on stage, as Ophelia in Hamlet.
"She's as flawed as she is anything else, but she's brilliant and brave and incredibly complex, and not all in nice neat tidy ways that you so often see," Jessica tells RadioTimes.com. "As a female protagonist, those sharp edges are often either apologised for or are curved right off, and I didn't get any of that with her."
Samantha Morton – Margaret Wells
Who does she play? Margaret Wells is at the centre of Harlots. Having risen up from the streets herself, she now runs her own house in Covent Garden where she is both tough and loving with her harlots, taking a cut of their earnings but also allowing them some freedom. The mother of two girls (Charlotte and Lucy), she is ambitious to claw her way up in society and give her daughters a better life than her own.
Where have I seen her before? Samantha Morton's many roles have earned her a Bafta, a Golden Globe, and two Oscar nominations. You may recognise her from Minority Report, Synecdoche New York, The Messenger, Rillington Place, The Last Panthers or Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them where she played Mary Lou (leader of the Second Salemers and father of Credence).
“Margaret Wells has had it tough yet she's incredibly optimistic and joyful," Samantha explains. "She loves life and loves her children, she doesn't suffer fools and has fought hard to get where she's got."
Eloise Smyth – Lucy Wells
Who does she play? Lucy, 15, is Margaret's youngest daughter and Charlotte's little sister. From birth she was destined to be in the family business and follow in her sister's footsteps, but her personality simply doesn't suit the role and she finds herself struggling in the profession.
Where have I seen her before? Eloise Smyth could be one of Harlots' breakout stars. She stars as Yeva Podnikov in Fortitude, and before that she was in The Frankenstein Chronicles – but the role of Lucy may make her more of a familiar face on TV.
So Lucy has been kept away from all of it but she has this eagerness to be involved," Eloise says. "All the women she looks up to around her, that’s what they do for a living. She has a glamourised view of it, and on some levels, is itching to be part of it. “But when she actually does approach it, she is massively out of her depth. It doesn’t really agree with her, the whole idea of having to put on a performance for men."
Lesley Manville – Lydia Quigley
Who does she play? Lydia Quigley is described as "the Lady Macbeth of brothel keepers". Her house in Soho is lavish and full of well-groomed girls who can hold conversations on erudite topics, play musical instruments and show off their accomplishments to high class clients. But this isn't a happy place to work, and she keeps her girls locked in and tied down with debt. At the beginning of Harlots, Lydia's decades-old feud with competitor Margaret reignites, and she will stop at nothing to keep the Wells in their place.
Where have I seen her before? If you're a theatre fan you might have caught Lesley Manville on stage in As You Like It, His Dark Materials, Six degrees of Separation, Grief or Ghosts in roles which won her critical acclaim and awards. But she also has plenty of film and TV roles under her belt, including Flittle in Maleficent, Cathy in Mum, Chrissie Read in River and Mrs Rose in Cranford. Back in the 70s she played Rosemary Kendall in Emmerdale.
Lydia has no redeeming features, Lesley says. "She's quite ruthless in her mission and there are some horrible scenes, there are some really horrid scenes. The way she manipulates young girls for her own end and sets girls up to be really very badly abused."