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There's lots of sex in 'Harlots' but it's really a show about economics

(L-R) Executive producers Debra Hayward, Alison Owen, actress Lesley Manville, and executive producer Moira Buffini of Hulu's Original Series 'Harlots.'
(L-R) Executive producers Debra Hayward, Alison Owen, actress Lesley Manville, and executive producer Moira Buffini of Hulu's Original Series 'Harlots.'
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

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A new TV series looks at ‘the world’s oldest profession’ through the perspective of the women who lived it in 18th Century London.

“Harlots” launched this week on Hulu and right from the start it makes a statement. In the opening shot of the first episode these words flash on screen:

"1763. LONDON IS BOOMING. 1 out of 5 women makes a living selling sex."

“Bustle” likened the show to Sofia Coppola’s "Marie Antoinette" in style while others have made comparisons to the sharply modern feminist commentary of “Orange is the New Black.” The show is co-created by Moira Buffini who tells The Frame, "For me, this is absolutely a show about economics." And while there is a lot of sex in the series, for her characters it's a means to an end.

I think with the sex, it is a job for the girls. It's like the violence in "The Sopranos," which is a job for those guys. It isn't dwelled upon. It isn't glorified. It isn't really anything. It's what they do. Someone doesn't pay up and they get violently beaten. Then the guys meet up and have a drink and moan about their wives. Similarly, in this case, the sex is a job and the mundanity of it was really important. 

Buffini is a playwright and screenwriter whose movie credits include the 2011 adaptation of “Jane Eyre.” She and her collaborators were determined to hire women directors for the series which was particularly important when it came to shooting the sex scenes. They also happened to hire an all-female writing staff. She spoke with The Frame recently from the BBC studios in London. 

Click the blue play button to hear the conversation. Below are highlights.


How London was the sex capital of the world in the 1760s:

I mean we found that an astonishing statistic when we discovered it. We knew that London in the 1760s was — and indeed for much longer than that — was the sex capital of the world. But we didn't know quite how prevalent it was. One in five women selling sex or in associated trades. For example, condom makers, the people who cleaned in brothels, cooked in brothels — perhaps what a retired courtesan or whore would do would be to cook the meals for the working girls. So in these associated trades, this was what a huge part of womankind did in London in the 1760s. 

How the 1760s Yelp-like guide to prostitutes helped pitch the show: 

The first time we pitched it was to Alison Owen, our producer at Monumental, who straight away got it and just said, yes I want to do this. We gave her "Harris's List of the Covent Garden Ladies" which is this amazing Yelp guide, if you like, to London's prostitutes. Our little reviews we wrote to fit the actresses we cast. But it's very much in the style of and in the language of the original "Harris' List."

There were other channels that we pitched it to who found it very hard to grasp. What they found hard to grasp was the tone of the series which is somewhere between high drama and comedy. What they found particularly hard to understand was that women in such a dreadful situation could have humor and wit. To us, that was absolutely essential.

Hulu's "Harlots" portrays life as a prostitute in London circa 1760.

On the role of camaraderie and humor in the show:

We think it's about women who are dancing on the edge of an abyss. The life of a courtesan and the life of a street whore, they're short. These girls have to make the most of their brief years of beauty. Some of them do very well out of it and others fall right off the wheel of fortune into the gutter and into the abyss and an early grave. It can be very bleak. But they are dancing on the edge of an abyss and right from the word go we thought we would show them dancing rather than just peer into that abyss. I think the great thing about women — and people generally — when they are in very extreme and difficult situations is that humor and camaraderie are the things that get them through.

On imagining life for women in the 1700s sex trade:

There's very little written by women that survives from the era. We found one autobiography of this fantastic woman who ran a sex shop. She was marvelous. Teresia Phillips. And there were a couple of other firsthand accounts. But most of the writing about prostitutes was by men. So you have to do a sort of twisting around on that and imagine yourself into the position of the women that they're writing about and think, what does the world look like from where she stands. So it's a kind of leap of the imagination...So we did that leap of the imagination and really tried to put ourselves in their position and think, what would our lives have been like?

Really, although 1763 seems a long time ago, there are still cities in the world where sex is the biggest industry for women and where if a woman is not looked after by a man, she has similarly narrow options.

Jessica Brown Findlay in Hulu's
Jessica Brown Findlay in Hulu's "Harlots."
Liam Daniel/Hulu

On hiring women behind the scenes & the female gaze:

We interviewed women and men writers, and, at the end of the day, we picked the people who responded best to the piece. But we didn't set out to have a female writers' room. But then once we did, we were really glad we did because it facilitated an opening up and a shorthand and a sense of humor. It was, at times, quite a raucous place. And it was a definite decision to have female directors. We knew right from the word go that this would really work seen from a female gaze.

On shooting sex scenes from the women's POV:

If you look at a lot of sex scenes, the camera is pointing down on the woman. When you are a woman, you are quite aware that your position in the bed is often looking up at the man. You see that more rarely onscreen. I think that we just wanted that difference of gaze. I think that we got it.

We also wanted to, with the sex scenes, make sure that they were dramatically a revelation of character always. I think with our female directors that just happened naturally without having to have a difficult conversation about it.

(L) Samantha Morton in Hulu's
(L) Samantha Morton in Hulu's "Harlots."

On the realities of life as a woman in 1760s London:

This was a world in which women had absolutely no economic power. A woman who was married was her husband's property. A daughter was her father's property. And a girl who had no man to look after her was incredibly vulnerable. You couldn't have a bank account. If you were divorced you were a pariah. The only woman lucky enough to have any power and able to keep her decency was a widow, if she had money. If she was left money by her husband and she didn't remarry and she had a male heir, she had a little bit of power.

The only other kind of woman who was able to look after her own money was a prostitute, astonishingly. A governess would have earned between £15 and £30 a year. A housemaid would have earned £2 a year. A prostitute could earn upwards of £200 a year. So you can really see that this was the only choice for a women to put a roof over their heads and food in their mouths in an independent fashion.

For me, this is absolutely a show about economics. Women have fought for a long time and really hard for economic freedom. And a show like this, looking back at how women used to live, it makes me think, every day be grateful for the economic freedom that we have. And to think, we must hold on to it with all our might because when you don't have it, those are your options.

On the show being the inverse of Jane Austen:

When a woman has no power — no political power, no economic power, no power within her relationship — the only power she's got is sexual power. These girls do use it. And fair play to them (laughs). And yes, I think this is the flip side to the Jane Austen novel.  

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