This pair of plucky period dramas thrill
Attitudes to sex in 18th-century Britain were rather rugged, as Poldark and Harlots prove.
The Cornish tourist board must be rubbing its hands with delight. Brooding period drama Poldark (Tuesdays, 8.30pm, Prime), set in 18th-century Cornwall, is back for a third series.
Raven-haired Ross Poldark continues to build his mine while locked in a bitter battle with spoilt rich kid, George Warleggan. All against a magnificent backdrop of Cornish countryside.
In the opening scene, Ross’ onetime love Elizabeth, now married to George and heavily pregnant, is out riding when her horse bolts. I’ll be honest, it felt like a checklist of every Poldark associated image you can think of. Galloping horse? Check. Wild and rugged cliffs? Check. Fabulous period costume? Check. Foaming waves crashing on the rocks? Check. Ross and his glossy locks? Check. I was wondering if the whole thing had turned into a parody of itself.
But it throws the viewer straight back into the story. And what a story it is. The first hour sees a secret marriage; a death; and a new baby for Elizabeth and George. But the question is, who is the father? With no DNA testing in the 18th century, I’m guessing we won’t have a definitive answer any time soon.
Meanwhile, 18th-century London is brought to the small screen in the glorious new drama Harlots (now available on Lightbox). The story centres around two brothels, run by feuding madams Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and Lydia
Quigley (Lesley Manville).
Wells runs a basic backstreet house of ‘‘ill repute’’ and Quigley operates at the top end of the market – her ‘‘girls’’ speak French and can have a conversation about art and culture. But Wells is set to move to a more illustrious address. ‘‘I’m clawing my way upwards in the world,’’ she tells one of her clients. However, when she’s suddenly dragged before the courts on the back of an anonymous complaint, the deposit for her new premises is wiped out and she’s forced to auction off her younger daughter’s virginity.
Yes, by our modern-day standards that sounds shocking but in 18thcentury London, people clearly had different attitudes to sex and, crucially, it was big business. At the time there was even a publication, Harris’s List, that was a sort of catalogue of prostitutes working in London. And it features heavily in the opening episode, with one character going to look for work with her ‘‘entry from Harris’s List‘‘ by way of a sort of resume.
Although there’s plenty of voluminous dress hoisting and rolling around on beds, the sex is certainly not glamourised here. For the women involved, and this series is very much about the women, this is ultimately about earning a living in a world where females had few rights and fewer options. As Wells herself so succinctly puts it : ‘‘The only safety is in money. Money is a woman’s only power in this world.’’
This is a fantastic series, with strong female characters, some great dialogue and a storyline that makes it impossible to look away. I’m utterly hooked.
Eleanor Tomlinson is back as Ross Poldark’s long-suffering wife Demelza in the new season of Poldark.
Although there’s plenty of rolling around on beds, the sex is far from glamorous in Harlots.