Cape Town - You’ll recognise Jessica Brown Findlay from Downton Abbey, where she played Lady Sybil – the youngest daughter who ran off with the chauffeur.
She’s now back on Showmax in Harlots, another hit period family drama, set in 18th century England.
This time though, her parents aren’t part of the nobility; she’s rather the eldest daughter of a brothel owner – and part of the family business herself.
Screenwriter Moira Buffini (Jane Eyre) was partly inspired to create Harlots by reading Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, a bestselling yearly publication of the time, which described, in very fine language, the services of London’s sex workers, from high-class courtesans to those who solicited in seedy bars and taverns. This gentleman’s guide to whoring led her to an outlaw society of women who had found a way to turn the economy of exploitation around and use it for their own benefit.
"I didn’t know about Harris’s List," says Jessica. "That there were literally reviews every year in a book form that everyone would have and read. They tell you exactly what you want to know. It’s brutal. But my character, Charlotte, does really well. She’s described as fascinating, exciting, alluring and mysterious. The most desired courtesan in London."
"There was something shocking or surprising at every single turn," she says of researching her role.
"One in five women in London were involved in the sex industry at this time. That statistic seems quite shocking. But when you consider other options open to women and what was available to them, it’s not very shocking. The age of consent was also 12. Which is a child. If you were married, your body was considered the man’s property. Along with your actual property. So anything could be done to you because you were the property of your husband. That’s not the world the harlots live in. Their property is theirs. It’s their body. And they decide what happens to it, to a certain extent. So that was really surprising."
She says there are "incredible parallels" between Harlots and today. "The fact that running a house where women are safe and have a place and clients come to them is still illegal – that is shocking. These women don’t just sleep with these men. They do all kinds of services. And any service which is considered to be of the sex trade is still so under-protected and not respected. That shouldn’t be the case. Your rights should be protected regardless of whether or not someone else might like or approve of what you’re doing."
She hopes Harlots will add to the ongoing conversation about the rights of sex workers, led in South Africa by the likes of SWEAT. "I think open discussion and honesty around subjects like sex is the only way forward so that we make this oldest profession in the world safer. We live in a world where sex is everywhere. But it’s insane how little we have moved on in terms of women’s rights in this area."
Harlots is the first commission for Monumental Pictures, the independent company founded by Oscar-nominated producers Alison Owen (Elizabeth, Temple Grandin) and Debra Hayward (Les Misérables, Love Actually).
Jessica believes that having women writing and directing every episode of Harlots was key to its success. "It made for a very different feeling. It was important just in terms of empowerment and the subject matter we were dealing with. There was an openness in which we could have discussions and talk."
She says Harlots is not about the male gaze. "This world revolves around sex. That’s what these women do. It’s the service they provide. But Harlots is not titillating. There was no question of going, ‘I know how we’ll get people to watch it. Let’s sex it up.’ Harlots is an honest conversation about life for these women at this time. It’s about love, family, desperation, social behaviour, economics and all of those things. Told from their point of view. In a way, to put the word ‘sex’ on to one act is bizarre. Actually what’s happening in their worlds is so much more complex than this little three letter word. They are women who are surviving. It’s incredible to see them struggle and thrive within that."
Jessica’s co-stars include two-time Oscar nominee Samantha Morton (In America, Sweet and Lowdown) and 2016 and 2017 BAFTA nominee Lesley Manville (River, Mum) as rival brothel owners.
Jessica loved the whole experience. “It was wonderful to work with so many people who were like-minded in their openness and being brave and daring. I can’t quite get over how much I adored it.”
At the time of writing, Harlots had a 97% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. “Think Downton Abbey meets Game of Thrones,” wrote Variety, while The Orlando Sentinel hailed it as “the most outstanding period drama debut on television since Game of Thrones.”
You can now binge-watch the eight-episode first season of Harlots - first and only on Showmax in Africa.