The first five minutes of the new British series Harlots is a whirlwind of narrative efficiency and intrigue. The opening credits tell us that in 1763, one in five women in London made her living as a prostitute. Lucy Wells (Eloise Smyth), a beautiful young woman in a slightly bedraggled pale turquoise silk dress, hurries through the streets of London carrying a small book. She arrives at a house and another young women grabs at the book, which turns out to be Harris's List, a sort of travel guide to the whores of industrial London. Lucy reads aloud to the working girls of her mother's brothel, saucily relishing the descriptions of their attributes amid much laughter, until her mother, Margaret (Samantha Morton), comes in, berating the girls' cattiness.
Margaret meets with a client who offers large sums of money for her Lucy's virginity. Margaret demurs, informing him she'll soon be moving to a finer house in SoHo. Cut to: a lavishly appointed whorehouse in Soho presided over by Mrs. Lydia Quigley (Mike Leigh maven Lesley Manville) assisted by her pudding-faced son. Lydia is upset that some of her girls have been negatively reviewed in the Harris tome, while Margaret's girls get fairly high ratings; clearly reviewers are not unduly impressed by the powdered wigs, silk finery and snuffboxes of Lydia's establishment.
Next we see some fired-up protesters of the religious variety gathered in the streets with leaflets and torches; the ladies are for burning, apparently. The king's constables are alongside them, with a raid and an inquisition seemingly happening simultaneously. One young harlot, having just finished up with her lust-dazed customer in an alley, asks him to walk with her so she won't be arrested; he refuses. Margaret scrambles to protect her charges; one customer blurts out, "Who dares interfere with a gentleman's right to go whoring?" Yeah, dude, it's all about you and your rights. From her fine carriage, Mrs. Quigley watches the raid on her rival's house with wary satisfaction. Most of the whores are arrested or assaulted. Lucy escapes, dressed as a man, and enlists the aid of her sister Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay, Downton Abbey), who speaks in her mother's defense at the hearing. Margaret is berated by the magistrate, fined a hundred pounds, and sent away.
Charlotte is the consort of a wealthy young merchant who wants to be her "lord and master" but she hesitates, and Margaret advises her to get her debts paid, but to keep her freedom. The two clash, Charlotte resenting having been made a whore at 12. Still, Lucy realizes surrendering her virginity to the highest bidder is the only way to pay her mother's fine. Barely 10 minutes into the series, we see that women's economic and sexual agency, celebrated yet precarious, can be toppled in an instant.
Harlots has a lively score (featuring a bit of Victorian harpsichord and a lot of contemporary percussive trip-hop), and the luscious mise en scène, full of authentic period sets and props and stunning costumes, is just a bit of flirtation; we're not even at the foreplay stage yet. Co-created by writer Moira Buffini (2011's Jane Eyre and Tamara Drewe) and Eastenders actress Alison Newman, and cast by industry doyenne Nina Gold, Harlots may be the most outstanding period drama debut on television since Game of Thrones – and that every episode is written and directed by women doesn't hurt one tiny bit.