If there’s any doubt that Jessica Brown Findlay has left Lady Sybil of “Downton Abbey” far behind, consider a recent interview with her by phone from London. Findlay was discussing her role as Charlotte, an 18th-century prostitute in Hulu’s drama series “Harlots,” while commuting by bus to perform that night as Ophelia in “Hamlet.”
If others remain fixated on the popular character she last played five years ago in “Downton” — “I think the British press think I might be that person” — she’s focused firmly on the work at hand.
“Harlots” is a bold showcase for Findlay, whose character is a madam’s daughter who went into the family business, and the rest of its female-dominated cast. But women also are the power behind the screen as writers, producers and in other key positions – a change that Brown found richly rewarding.
“Normally, when I’m reading (a script), I’m like, ‘That character’s brilliant’ – and it’s a guy,” she said with a laugh. But in “Harlots,” the women are fully formed and as intriguing as any man.
“It’s really exciting to allow female characters to be frustrating and imperfect and infuriating and funny,” Findlay said. Her co-stars include Samantha Morton as her mother, Margaret, and Lesley Manville as Lydia, a rival madam with a vicious streak. The history-based story was a revelation to Findlay.
“I was aware it was a time when London was exploding economically, doing incredibly well, and with that came lavish lifestyles,” she said. For the prostitutes and madams and catered to men with disposable income, the reward was the ability to “own property, have rights over their own bodies, make a living and survive.”
The idea of survival by any means was the harsh reality for women who lacked connections or a man, whether husband, father or otherwise, as their protector, said Moira Buffini, who created and produced the series with Alison Newman.
A woman without such a safety net might end up in the sex industry, said Buffini, who says the tally is startlingly large when all connected to it are included “One in five women were working as sex workers or in associated businesses, like cleaners or cooks in the house,” she said. “There were three sex shops in Covent Garden; condom makers; back street abortionists, and the child-minders who looked after the prostitute’s children while they worked.”
London’s Covent Garden, now a popular shopping and tourist area, was the city’s version of a red-light district in the 1700s. It even boasted a guidebook to individual prostitutes, “Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies.”
Newman came across a copy, which opened a window for the creative partners on the “amazing outlaw society of 18th-century harlotry” and led to “Harlots,” Buffini said. But it wasn’t Buffini’s first work on the general subject. “Loveplay,” which received an Olivier Award nomination for best comedy play in 2003, dealt with it as well. The inspiration for that was more direct. Early in her career, she taught drama to female prison inmates and discovered how many had supported themselves as prostitutes.
“It struck me they were defined by what they did and not by who they are. Because I knew who they were, it struck me as odd,” she said. She’d already seen the toll it could exact on one individual, an older woman who had been left in a “bad way” by her past life and who Buffini’s mother helped care for.
“You could see the way her job had played out in her life. You could see the damage, not just on her but on her children’s children,” she said.
“Harlots,” with its lavishly costumed and painted prostitutes, looks at both the hard-earned freedom and the anguish such a life accorded. But given the number of people now working in the sex industry, voluntarily or not, why not tackle the modern reality?
Buffini has a ready answer.
“History gives you a fascinating prism through which to look at the contemporary world and to look at contemporary gender politics. History removes you from the dead weight of documentary, if you like, as a dramatist,” she said. “It frees you from that and it gives you a language and gives you a bright, focused color palette in which to explore quite specific things.”