First look at Downton Abbey star in new period drama about sex workers

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Kayleigh Dray
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Downton Abbey fans will know her as feminist Lady Sybil Branson, the character who tragically died from eclampsia shortly after giving birth.

Now it has been revealed that actor Jessica Brown Findlay is taking on a prominent role in yet another period drama.

Harlots, however, couldn’t be more different from the cosy country-house dramas of Downton.

The new series, set in 18th-century London, sees Findlay take on the role of the city’s most coveted courtesan, Charlotte Wells.

While she boasts an impressive clientele, the Georgian sex worker soon finds herself caught up in a bitter feud between two brothel owners: newcomer Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) and Charlotte’s own mother, Margaret (Samantha Morton).

Watch the trailer for Harlots below:

The entire series – which apparently boasts just as much male nudity as it does female – was written and directed by an all-female crew, in a tone similar to that of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.

And, just like the Kirsten Dunst movie, this period drama is angled from an entirely female gaze – or, as executive producer Alison Owen told the Television Critics Association, a “whore’s eye view”.

She told ITV: “In 1760s London there were brothels on every corner run by women who were both enterprising and tenacious.

“History has largely ignored them, but their stories are in turn outrageous, brutal, humorous and real.”

Co-creator Moira Buffini added that “it’s a show about economics as much as it is about sex workers”.

She said: “The economics of this world are all-consuming. Nobody wants to see a timid piece of work, and we’re all motivated by things we see around us in the world today.

“We’re refracting it through this prism of the past.”

Meanwhile Debra Hayward has praised Buffini and Owen for the powerful and original drama.

She said: “Moira and Alison’s writing doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to sex and violence, but it’s the juxtaposition of these things and the domesticity of the ‘houses’ that makes Harlots so compelling.” 

The show will be streamed on US service Hulu from the end of March and will debut on ITV Encore in the UK.


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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.