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31 March 2017updated 02 Aug 2021 11:08am

A little light Georgian porn: ITV’s Harlots very much does what it says on the tin

The drama is certainly ripe: all quims and cunnies and special offer hymens.

By Rachel Cooke

London, 1763, and on Cheapside a bawd who goes by the name of Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) is preparing to auction off the virginity of her younger daughter, Lucy (Eloise Smyth), so that they both might move up in the world. The process, anticipating the routines of Foxtons 250 years later, involves a public viewing at the opera, where the pair of them take a box, followed by sealed bids.

Poor Lucy. The interested rakes and ­dandies are a ghastly lot: fat, ugly, garishly powdered and rouged. But a house in Greek Street, then as now, doesn’t come cheap. It’s all hands on deck – or, in this case, on the fly of the breeches of the auction’s winner, the chinless George Howard (Hugh Skinner), a chap who also happens to keep as his mistress Lucy’s sister, Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay, in a wig so huge that if the place in Soho doesn’t work out they can all live inside it instead).

And so I welcome you, fully lipsticked and sexily cracking my critical whip, to the world of Harlots (Mondays, 10pm), a series that very much does what it says on the tin. As tough as a cheap cut of meat, Margaret Wells is, as you’ll have gathered, a highly ruthless businesswoman. But she also has stiff competition in the form of Mrs Quigley (Lesley Manville), who would like to see her “publicly flayed until her back resembles a latticed tart”, and whose bawdy house up west, being rather more cultivated than Wells’s own, is able to charge somewhat higher prices. (Quigley’s girls play instruments and perform in elegant tableaux.) For the next few weeks, then, the two of them will be fighting a turf war, competing madly for girls, punters and the chance to use the fruitiest lines their scriptwriter, Moira Buffini, can possibly serve up.

Yes, it really is quite ripe, her dialogue: all quims and cunnies and special offer hymens. Goodness knows what the viewers of ITV Encore – the ITV channel that is exclusive to Sky viewers – are going to make of it. Having tuned in expecting old episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Kavanagh QC, they will be greeted by the sound of many rude words and the sight of one of Wells’s or Quigley’s “very rideable pieces”, her legs akimbo as a fellow with a beauty spot scoots, ferret-like, inside her petticoat. Will the channel, I wonder, be issuing ­pensioner-friendly trigger warnings before the titles roll? (“Some viewers may find the following programme a little more . . . exciting than Heartbeat.”) Or has audience research revealed that there is nothing the baby boomers of Great Britain long for more than a little light Georgian porn? I don’t know and I can’t bear to ask my parents. However, I will say that Harlots, though ­undoubtedly rather over the top, is both well acted and quite wittily written (“Fanny, the lieutenant would cherish a voyage on your peaks”). Think of it as Footballers’ Wives by way of Daniel Defoe and the good old Earl of Rochester.

Early Evelyn Waugh? No, me neither. But even if I was a fan, I would be slightly mystified by the BBC’s decision to commission an adaptation of his first novel, Decline and Fall (Fridays, 9pm). Why this book, now? The satire is somewhat laboured and it doesn’t score many points in the contemporary relevance stakes, for all that its undoubtedly talented screenwriter, James Wood (Rev, Ambassadors), has the riotous members of the Bollinger Club hurl what looked very much to me like a pig’s head from a window at Scone College, Oxford, in the opening scene.

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Jack Whitehall is perfectly cast as Paul Pennyfeather, the impoverished theology student who, having been unfairly sent down from the varsity, joins the staff of a horrifyingly bad boys’ boarding school in Wales; and he is surrounded by star turns when it comes to his fellow teachers, among them Douglas Hodge as Grimes and Vincent Franklin as Prendergast (though Eva Longoria of Desperate Housewives fame convinces not at all as Pennyfeather’s love interest, Margot Beste-Chetwynde). Yet somehow it just never sparks to life. It is very silly and it is very white. How I wish the Beeb had done Scoop (again) instead.

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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition