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Television John Doyle: Harlots is vigorously bawdy from the female perspective

First off, if you're a Downton Abbey fan, note that the subject of today's epistle features the actress most famous for playing Lady Sybil.

You'll remember Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) as the youngest child of the Crawley family. A rebel and politically conscious woman, she threw away her aristocratic heritage for love, to marry the family chauffeur Tom Branson. Well, in the production under discussion today, there are aristocrats aplenty but little love. Jessica Brown Findlay plays a high-class prostitute.

Harlots (starts Thursday, Super Channel, 9 p.m.) is a British costume drama, made with Hulu, and set in London in 1763 when, as the opening credits say, 1 in 5 women worked in the sex trade. There are fabulous sets and gorgeous frocks and a lot of sex. But this isn't a lavish, lush historical drama with charmingly staged scenes of canoodling and bursting bodices.

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Series creators Moira Buffini and Alison Newman, and a team of female writers and directors, anchor the show in reality. The series is about sex, being about two warring houses of prostitution and the women who run them and those who work in them (the women are called "whores" and the phrase "bawdy house" is the language of the series). But it is about money and exploitation. There is plenty of eye candy and behind that a grim determination to illuminate the economy of titillation and illustrate the force of sexuality itself. That doesn't mean it is a grim denunciation. Far from it. It's a sizzler about sex, power and money.

Harlots is emphatically character driven and the two main characters are the rival madams, Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville). Margaret owns a successful bawdy house in Covent Garden. But she wants to move up in the world. She's saving money to move to a more glamorous area and get wealthier clients. Her ace, she believes, is the looming auction of the virginity of her 15-year-old daughter Lucy (Eloise Smyth) to the highest bidder. Lucy's virginity might fetch £100. That would underwrite the business move.

Yes, in our contemporary terms, Margaret is a brutal villain. But in the context of 1763, she is what she is. Margaret herself was sold off by her mother when she was 12, and the price was a pair of shoes. That was her start in prostitution. She was, as we learn, sold at the time to Lydia Quigley. And, if Margaret seems monstrous, Quigley is just a monster with pretensions to grandeur. All her prostitutes are trapped, too, but they are taught to carry a conversation with gentlemen, play an instrument or, as prostitutes must, specialize in flagellation or some other vice of the toffs who are the top-paying customers.

In between Margaret and Lydia, as a counterpoint, stands Margaret's daughter Charlotte (Findlay), who is a very successful independent courtesan. A woman who aristocrats adore and lust after, she has offers of lucrative contracts to be some toff's exclusive whore for a large fee. Charlotte is, however, contemptuous of those toffs. She wants the money and power but she doesn't want to be tied down by them. What she really wants is marriage to a wealthy man. And of this, Margaret is, in turn, contemptuous, too. "I wouldn't wish marriage on any woman," she sneers. "And see a man own all that she owns? No."

Most of the main figures in this strange, disruptive drama (the soundtrack is contemporary rock) are women. They are cruel, mostly. Even those leading the battle to shut down the brothels are women and their actions are vicious. They look on the powerful women running the brothels as vermin.

Margaret is, on the surface, the more benign character. That is, she wants to take care of her "girls" and accumulate money. But even when she seems protective, the viewer recalls her saying calmly, "I'll be taking sealed bids for Lucy's virginity." Lydia Quigley is at the top of the brothel business because she's the toughest pimp of them all – wily, uncaring and venomous.

For all of the sex shown in Harlots, none of it is pleasant. Often, it is ridiculous. The female team behind it are intent on relaying sex from the female characters' perspective. Thus, it is either awkward performance or painful. As such, Harlots is an ocean away from the sex scenes depicted in Game of Thrones or other pseudo-historical drama. It is a kind of corrective. But still vigorously, disconcertingly bawdy. Highly recommended as unsettling, adult entertainment.

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