Harlots has been one of the best kept secrets for the past few years, and if you’ve not already binged it through subscription television, now’s your chance to see what all the fuss is about.
The show – which follows a brothel owner struggling to move up in the decadent and debauched world of 18th century Georgian London – was first broadcast in 2017 on ITV Encore, a channel sadly no longer with us.
It was shown in the US on Hulu, with which it was a US-UK co-production with ITV Studios, but was cancelled after three seasons earlier this year.
Now the BBC has come to the rescue, securing the broadcast rights to the three series to be shown on BBC Two, a move which is sure to lock in a much larger audience for the underrated gem.
Here’s everything you need to know:
Set against the backdrop of 18th century Georgian London, Harlots offers a new take on the city’s most valuable commercial activity – sex.
Inspired by the stories of real women, the show follows Margaret Wells and her daughters as she struggles to reconcile her roles as mother and brothel owner.
When her business comes under attack from Lydia Quigley, a rival madam with a ruthless streak, Margaret must fight back, even if it means putting her family at risk.
Meanwhile, Charlotte (Margaret’s eldest daughter and the city’s most coveted courtesan) begins to grapple with her position in both society and her immediate family.
In the early episodes of the first series, Margaret plans to move up in the world by taking over a house in Greek Street, while rival Lydia enlists religious crusaders and constables to raid the illegal abode.
The stars of the female-led show are Samantha Morton and Lesley Manville, who play warring madams Margaret and Lydia respectively.
Morton has appeared in a string of high-profile projects, including Oscar-nominated roles in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown and Jim Sheridan’s In America. She also gave a stunning performance in Steven Spielberg sci-fi epic, Minority Report.
Manville honed her acting skills on Soldier Soldier, and has spent decades turning out a wealth of dramas and comedies.
She’s one of BAFTA’s most regular nominees, and her turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread landed her an Oscar nomination in 2018.
If you’re a fan of Manville’s sitcom Mum, look out for co-star Dorothy Atkinson as religious zealot Florence Scanwell.
Downton Abbey veteran Jessica Brown Findlay also co-stars as Margaret’s daughter, Charlotte Wells.
Harlots is written by acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Moira Buffini – who has previously brought adaptations of Jane Eyre and Tamara Drewe to the big screen – and EastEnders’ Alison Newman.
“Harlots was born of friendship and it has been a labour of love,” they say. “Our desire was to write an epic story, where a large cast of women drove the action.
“We wanted to create a drama in which sex workers would recognise themselves; a drama in which we imagined what it was like to lead such a life, in a different time.
“It’s always been the coal-face of gender politics and that’s where we wanted to put our female gaze. Our characters have a contemporary edge. It’s a costume drama with its teeth sunk firmly in the modern world.”
Trivia fans may also note the first few episodes are directed by Coky Giedroyc, sister of Mel, and director of the new Caitlin Moran-inspired movie, How to Build a Girl.
The first two episodes of Harlots debuted on BBC Two on Wednesday 5 August at 9pm; subsequent episodes will air in similar double bills on Wednesday evenings.
Series two is not yet available through iPlayer, but since the BBC previously announced the first two seasons would air back to back, it stands to reason the second instalment will be made available in full when it begins broadcasting on BBC Two.
That’s currently expected to begin on 2 September.