Topless women, sex in broad daylight and brothels…Harlots is the bawdiest drama BBC has ever aired

IN the middle of a packed London street a topless woman straddles a man in a carriage as they have sex in broad daylight.

Moments later the camera sweeps into a brothel, where a string of men are serviced by naked ladies.

Welcome to the first 60 seconds of Harlots, a saucy tale of London’s booming sex industry of the 1700s — and the bawdiest drama the BBC has ever aired.

Starring Lesley Manville and Samantha Morton as rival brothel madames, the series draws heavily on Harris’s List Of Covent Garden Ladies, an annual prostitution guidebook published between 1757 to 1795.

The directory was based on the “inside knowledge” of Jack Harris, known as the “Pimp-General of All England.”

Lesley, 64, who has recently been cast as Princess Margaret in series five and six of Netflix’s The Crown, says: “It’s an extraordinary Yellow Pages of the prostitutes working in Covent Garden.

“The way these women were being categorised and described can only mean the men having the liaisons with these women were relaying that information.

“You read it and you can almost feel yourself in the Covent Garden coffee house where the story was being told to the author.

“Harlots is a proper, fully-fledged story about what it was like to be trying to survive as a prostitute in 1763 in Georgian England at every level of society.

“Along the way you get humour, bitterly sad stories, revenge, pain, women hating women. You get a bit of everything in it.

“But it’s coming from an angle of truth and of trying to be honest to that time.”

The drama, which starts tomorrow, is soaked in sex from start to finish and does not shrink from showing the lengths the women would go to to satisfy their clients.

The action is split between the the two rival brothels, a high-class affair run by Lesley’s character Lydia Quigley and a more downmarket joint headed by Samantha’s Margaret Wells.

And the writers had plenty of inspiration for their cast of characters from Harris’s List.

The pocketbook, which was bought by 8,000 Londoners, provided illustrations and graphic descriptions of around 200 sex workers in the heart of the capital.

Although it was based on Harris’s knowledge, it was written by Samuel Derrick, an Irish author who had failed in various trades, from linen-draping to acting.

The book’s subtitle, Man Of Pleasure’s Kalendar, set the tone for the content, which was so graphic in its descriptions it was believed some bought it as a form of soft porn.

The list was not the first of its kind, however.

'LISTED WHAT THEIR GENITALS LOOKED LIKE'

In 1660 there was a similar guide called The Wandering Whore, and in 1691 there was the catchily titled Catalogue Of Jilts, Cracks & Prostitutes, Nightwalkers, Whores, She-friends, Kind Women And Other Of The Linnen-lifting Tribe.

But Harris’s was the most extensive and detailed. It featured erotic images and listed the women’s ages, general appearance and, on occasions, what their genitals looked like.

It even included a political message that prostitution did more good than harm, suggesting that if pent-up men were having sex in brothels, they were not fighting on the street.

The aim of the guide was to provide a comprehensive selection of women who could cater for every whim and fetish of their clients, male or female.

In the second series of Harlots, which has already aired in the US, Hollywood star Liv Tyler appears as Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam, a toff exploring her sexuality in a lesbian clinch with a prostitute.

Harlots also shows the dark side of the industry, with women being abused and forced into selling their bodies just to survive.

At the time the action is set it is believed one in five women in London were sex workers.

While for many it was their only way to make a living, for some it was the chance to have a little fun.

Lesley, 64, says: “There were stories of well-to-do, middle-class ladies who were in desperately boring marriages coming up from the suburbs for a day.

“They would come up to London and just prostitute themselves. Not so much for the money, but just to have a bit of fun.

“Then they’d go home back to wherever they lived.

“I found that extraordinary as well because that also says a lot about marriages.

‘KEPT IN JEWELS AND GIVEN A NICE HOUSE’

“Marriages were not primarily made for love. They were made for convenience or status.

“People were not getting married because they had fallen in love and genuinely wanted to be together. So there were an awful lot of bored marrieds around.”

In the more high-class brothels the madames used imaginative ways of displaying their girls to clients.

Recalling one such scene in Harlots, Lesley says: “These young, beautiful girls are laid out on tables with fruit very strategically placed all over.

“It’s not a debauched scene. It’s quite a beautiful scene.

“The girls present these tableaux images of goddesses, with these very dignified-looking gentlemen sitting there drinking their claret, just looking at them.

“The girls do it brilliantly. And if they didn’t they would be out. And then, at certain times of the evening, they very quietly take the gentlemen upstairs. Then the sex happens.”

Harlots shows how prostitution was not just a means of escaping poverty for many women, but also a way to gain great riches.

Charlotte Wells, played by Jessica Brown Findlay, is a prostitute who lives in luxury as the permanent live-in lover of Sir George Howard, played by Hugh Skinner.

Such unions were not unheard of.

Prostitute Harriet Powell married an MP, Kenneth Mackenzie, the 1st Earl of Seaforth.

And Elizabeth Armistead wed Foreign Secretary Charles James Fox.

Lesley says: “They’re all hoping, as is the case with Charlotte Wells, that they become the permanent mistress of somebody. Then you don’t have to sleep with lots of men. You sleep with one man and you are his mistress at his beck and call.

“And you are kept in jewels and given a nice house to live in with staff. That’s what they’re after.”

For those not lucky enough to snag a wealthy patron, prostitution could still lead to great wealth.

Harris’s List includes details of three women — Becky LeFevre, Miss Marshall and Miss Becky Child — who all made a fortune through their trade.

And it was thanks to the Harris’s List that London prostitute Charlotte Hayes also had a rags-to-riches transformation.

She was the unrequited love interest of Harris’s List author Samuel Derrick.

His guidebook made the modern-day equivalent of £250,000 a year, and when he died in 1769, he left his fortune to Charlotte.

She used the money to set up her own brothels, including The Nunnery in central London’s St James’s, where politicians, toffs and even royalty would splash their cash on “special events”.

Her most famous event, staged in 1778, saw a performance of a Tahitian Feast Of Venus, inspired by the journeys of explorer Captain Cook.

Basically a fancy live sex show which turned into an orgy, it featured, “No less than three and twenty visitors, consisting chiefly of the first nobility”.

She used her immense wealth to buy two estates — Clay Hill in Epsom, Surrey, and Canons Park in Edgware, North West London.

COURT FAVOUR WITH POWERFUL MEN

But more importantly, she found that selling sex allowed her to move in the upper levels of society, gaining influence among the men who ruled the country.

This is the inspiration for Lesley’s character Lydia, who uses her brothel as a means to court favour with powerful men.

Lesley says: “She looks after her girls but purely for professional reasons.

“It’s not because she wants to care for them, nurture them, have friendships with them and any kind of female bonding in any wholesome way.

“Which is why she seemingly enjoys dealing with the powerful men. That’s what she wants: Power.”

  • Harlots is on BBC2 at 9pm tomorrow.

'Tongue of double charm'

DESCRIPTIONS of prostitutes in the Harris’s List did not lack for colour.

Miss Johnson, of 17 Goodge Street, was noted for having “such elasticity in her loins that she can cast her lover to a pleasing height and receive him again with utmost dexterity”.

Miss Noble was known for her “skill in reviving the dead” with her tongue of “double charm”.

Miss Lister, of 6 Union Road, had “tresses of the darkest brown with the neighbouring hills below ripe for manual pleasure – firm and elastic and heave at every touch”.

Miss Wilmot, a favourite of the Duke of York, had one of her liaisons chronicled in the list: “The snowy orbs of her breast, by their frequent rising and failing, beat Cupid’s alarm-drum to storm instantly.”

Miss Wilson, of Cavendish Square, pleasured female clients and it was noted: “A female bed-fellow can give more real joys than ever she experienced with the male part of the sex”.

And it was written of Mrs Forbes, of Yeoman’s Row: “She has played with her own sex in bed, where she is as lascivious as a goat.”

But not all descriptions were complimentary.

Miss Lewis, of Earl Street, was branded: “A little, spirited wench – rather too much addicted to an impetuosity of passion on trivial occasions”.

Miss Berry is slated for being “almost rotten, and her breath cadaverous” while Miss Dean annoyed one particular client by cracking nuts while he was “acting his joys”.

The guide also provided red flags of who to beware of, such as the warning about Miss West, “Who can pick her gallant’s pocket very coolly while in the act”.

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