I don’t think there’s ever been so much publicity for a series being shown only on ITV Encore before. That’ll be partly because of the impressive names amongst the cast list (Samantha Morton, Lesley Manville, Jessica Brown Findlay) and partly because of the subject matter. In 1763, we were informed at the start, London was booming (at the end of the Seven Years’ War – four years after the Year of Miracles and all that!) and one in five women there earned a living from prostitution. We then saw various young ladies reading their entries in “Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies” – a directory of all the “ladies” in question, summarising their charms and skills (or lack of). This directory did indeed exist, from 1757 to 1795 (thank you, Wikipedia!).
I thought at first, probably influenced by the fact that one of the show’s creators is Alison Newman from Footballers’ Wives (the other is Moira Buffini, whom I have to admit I’d never heard of it but who apparently went to my mum’s old school), that it was all going to be totally OTT and sensationalist and make no attempt to tell a story, but it did improve considerably as time went on. There are two rival houses, but most of the focus is on the one lower down the pecking order, run by Margaret Wells, Samantha Morton’s character – who, we later learnt, had been sold to a brothel by her mother when she was only 10, and made some telling comments about money being a woman’s only weapon and means of holding power. Her elder daughter, played by Jessica Brown Findlay, was being pursued by a cross-dressing, make-up-wearing baronet who wanted her to be his exclusive courtesan, and contract negotiations (think Gigi, but without the initial innocence) were under way, but she didn’t want to give up her independence.
The baronet was a bit of a cartoon character, but even more so was the preachy puritanical type, dressed in black bombazine and a very prissy-looking bonnet, who denounced poor Margaret and got the powers that be threatening to close her “disorderly house” down. It turned out that the be-bombazined one was actually in the pay of Margaret’s dastardly rival, Lydia Quigley, who ran what she claimed was a far more upmarket house of ill repute, in which the ladies were all very well up on art and culture. Mind you, Margaret’s girls also went to the theatre, and got their names in the social columns of the papers. Funny, I always associate that sort of thing with the Restoration period rather than the eighteenth century, but I don’t know why. I think we sometimes get so influenced by the Victorians that we think the past was always very prim and proper, whereas London society, certainly from the Restoration to early Victorian times, was anything but! It’s not just about being “proper” … the setting of this series predates the Romantics, and that’s something that’s important to remember as well.
Anyway, so poor old Margaret was left facing a big fine, and the only way she had of paying it off was to take sealed bids for the deflowering of her younger daughter, and accept the highest. You wonder why she thought she’d get a better price from sealed bids rather than an open auction, but never mind. The elder daughter’s make-up-wearing baronet, who’d got the needle that she wouldn’t sign his contract, put in the highest bid, but then he wasn’t up to the job … but was too embarrassed to ask for his refund, so Margaret got her money and the younger daughter remained un-deflowered.
It’s certainly got potential. We need to know more about the other girls, and how they came to be working in brothels, but there’s time for that. And, although it’d looked initially as if it was going to be all sensationalism, it wasn’t. There were some telling comments about the position of women in society, and it was hard not to warm to Margaret, who’d obviously had as difficult life but was battling her way through it and showed far more care for her girls than Lydia Quigley did. The baronet and the be-bombazined preachy type looked as if they’d wandered in off the set of Blackadder, but the other characters were quite promising. I’ll be sticking with this.