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Harlots: Samantha Morton and Lesley Manville share experiences on set of historical drama

Historical drama Harlots is finally hitting UK screens. Stars Samantha Morton and Lesley Manville talk about their time and experiences on set of the show. By Georgia Humphreys

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Lesley Manville as Lydia Quigley

Lesley Manville as Lydia Quigley

Press Association Images

Lesley Manville as Lydia Quigley

Saucy, naughty and women behaving badly" - that is how Lesley Manville describes TV series Harlots, which is set in brothels in 18th century London. The powerful period drama was made for US streaming service Hulu, and first aired back in 2017.

Manville (64) agrees it has been "hidden away" (it was only available to watch in the UK on a subsidiary called Starzplay) and is delighted all three series are coming to BBC Two.

Ahead of the show's launch here, the Brighton-born actress is keen to stress it is a family drama, as well as being about prostitutes (a job one in five women in central London had during the Georgian era).

Inspired by stories of real women, it follows Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and her daughters, as she struggles to reconcile her roles as mother and brothel owner.

When her business comes under attack from Lydia Quigley (Manville) - a madam with a ruthless streak - Margaret must fight back, even if it means putting her family at risk.

"At the centre of Harlots is this fantastic rivalry between Lydia Quigley and Margaret Wells; they've just got this historical feud that will not go away," elaborates Manville.

"There are delicious exchanges between them - and looks. It's these two formidable characters who just can't bear the other one to have the upper hand so there's this great clash of minds and status and, yeah, there's some really cracking stuff for Samantha and I to get our teeth into."

Of the fascinating characters, she follows: "There's a complexity to their relationship too, because Lydia brought Margaret up, to a degree; she's known her since she was a child.

"So, there's a sort of love and tenderness that's so buried beneath it all, but there is real passion going on between the two of them as well. It's steeped in so much painful history; the pain of being - which Margaret was - a young girl being put out to prostitute herself."

Manville is someone Nottingham native Morton has admired hugely since starting out at The Royal Court Theatre, in London, where "you'd hear about Lesley".

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Samantha Morton as Margaret Wells

Samantha Morton as Margaret Wells

Press Association Images

Samantha Morton as Margaret Wells

"Lesley is a legend. For me she's up there with Meryl Streep, she's a British icon," gushes Morton, star of TV series such as The Walking Dead, and films including Minority Report.

"She's phenomenal on stage and in TV. She's just insanely talented. So, I was really nervous at the first read-through; it was, like 'I'm in a room with Lesley Manville! Try and act cool, try and act like you know what you're talking about'.

"You always feel like you're winging a bit anyway - well, I do!"

But Manville was so "lovely and welcoming and caring" that Morton "felt safe with her", she recalls.

"You could then have loads of fun with those scenes, because if you do feel safe with another actor, then you can really let rip and allow the director to direct in different ways."

What also stands out about Harlots, as Morton acknowledges proudly, is that it is "a show that is produced by women, written by women, directed by women, and starring women".

"It's not that men get it wrong; sometimes they do. Sometimes women get it wrong. But I think Harlots were a little bit different in how we approached shooting sex scenes.

"It was all from the female gaze and therefore, one would hope, and certainly what I saw, was that the actors were treated with a huge amount of dignity.

"I mean, there often is that anyway. I've done hundreds of sex scenes where it's closed set, where people aren't allowed near the monitors."

However, chatty Morton is incredibly and refreshingly candid about "awful" experiences she had as an actress during the earlier years of her career.

The mum-of-three, who is married to film editor Harry Holm, recalls working on 90s ITV drama Band Of Gold, about a group of sex workers in Bradford, in which she played Tracy Richards.

"I was 16, and I would be sobbing in my trailer because of certain things I'd have to do, and the really lovely wardrobe girls would say, 'Listen, if you'd just put corn plaster on your nipples then you won't have to show your boobs'."

She continues, thoughtfully: "I think, in hindsight, some of what I had to do on Band Of Gold was navigated by people that just didn't know any better; there was no malice, they were just treating me like another worker bee.

"They wouldn't say to 30 crew - all male pretty much - 'Can you leave the set please?' These were the days when people were smoking on set.

"It was just a very different world."

She confides she "got a reputation quite quickly for being a bit tricky, because I came from Nottingham, I came from a bit of a rough background, and the only way I felt I could hold my own was being a bit tough back".

In general, the "industry is changing for the better", she says.

And things changed for her as she became more successful, and could talk to her agents about different ways of filming, such as asking for a body double.

"Saying no to something you're uncomfortable with is okay because it's where you can work out ways to do it so that everyone's happy - I now know that," she adds.

When asked about the sex scenes in Harlots, Manville suggests "some of the loveliest bits of Harlots are when you go behind the scenes of Margaret Wells's house".

"You see Margaret being a mum, and you see her daughters being young girls, and you see other prostitutes with their babies and just trying to be good mothers," follows the affable star, who has one son from her marriage to ex-husband, actor Gary Oldman.

"It's a very broad view of it, which I think is partly why I think this show is so rounded...

"I don't want people just to watch this, and think, 'This is great, we're going to see lots of women having sex and it's all prostitutes and Georgian London'.

"Yes, it is about that, but it also is a feminist view of it all."

Series one and two of Harlots will air back to back on BBC Two from Wednesday, 9pm

Belfast Telegraph