Harlots BBC2 period drama start date, plot, cast and trailer

Jessica Brown Findlay as Charlotte Wells in Harlots BBC
(Image credit: BBC/Monumental/Liam Daniel)

Jessica Brown Findlay stars in the 18th century set drama

Harlots is a new BBC2 period drama, with a cast including Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay, set in a London brothel.

The racy drama - e.g there’s quite a lot of sex in it! - was first shown in 2017 on ITV Encore and is now on iPlayer to watch. See our BBC dramas 2020 guide for more great dramas to enjoy now on iPlayer.

Harlots plot: What’s in store?

Set in 18th century Georgian London, Harlots follows brothel owner Margaret Wells (Oscar-nominated actress Samantha Morton) and her family as they battle to climb the social ladder. But, her business is under attack from rival madam Lydia Quigley (played by Mum star Lesley Manville).

Amazingly, in this period of history one in five women in London were making their living as prostitutes. We soon meet Margaret’s daughter, Charlotte Wells (Jessica Brown Findlay), who is London’s most coveted courtesan. But she is struggling with her position in the world and within her own family.

“Our desire was to write an epic story, where a large cast of women drove the action,” says the shows co-creators, Moria Buffini and Alison Newman.

Who stars in Harlots?

Leading the cast are Samantha Morton, Lesley Manville and Jessica Brown Findlay. Downton Abbey fans will remember Jessica as Lady Sybil Crawley, who died in the hit drama.

Who’s who in Harlots

Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton)

Margaret Wells in BBC2 Harlots

Samantha Morton as Margaret (Image credit: BBC/Monumental/Liam Daniel)

The show’s central character, who’s risen from the streets and wants to continue her rise in society. She runs a middle-class brother in London’s Covent Garden. She is very ambitious for her two daughters

Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville)

Lesley Manville as Lydia

Lesley Manville as Lydia (Image credit: BBC/Monumental/Robert Viglasky)

Margaret’s rival, who wants to drive her opponent out of business. Billed by the Beeb as “The Lady Macbeth of brothel keepers,” she runs a brothel in Soho. She keeps her girls locked up and is the villain of the piece.

Charlotte Wells (Jessica Brown Findlay)

Jessica Brown Findlay in Harlots BBC2

Jessica Brown Findlay as Charlotte (Image credit: BBC/Monumental/Liam Daniel)

Margaret’s eldest daughter is something of a London celebrity. Fiery and rebellious, she has a dangerous destructive streak.

Lucy Wells (Eloise Smyth)

Eloise Smyth as Lucy Wells in Harlots

Eloise Smyth as Lucy Wells (Image credit: BBC/Monumental/Liam Daniel)

Margaret’s youngest daughter, who struggles with the family business. But what else can she do with her life?

Nancy Birch (Kate Fleetwood)

Kate Fleetwood as Nancy Birch

Kate Fleetwood as Nancy Birch (Image credit: BBC/Monumental/Liam Daniel)

Margaret’s oldest friend and in their youth they both worked for Lydia. She can’t stand the way Lydia operates. She tries to save the girls from the dangers of the streets.

Is there a trailer for Harlots?


Yes! And it looks, well, racy!

Harlots is available on iPlayer (see our TV Guide for more shows to enjoy).

David Hollingsworth

David is the What To Watch Editor and has over 20 years of experience in television journalism. He is currently writing about the latest television and film news for What To Watch.

Before working for What To Watch, David spent many years working for TV Times magazine, interviewing some of television's most famous stars including Hollywood actor Kiefer Sutherland, singer Lionel Richie and wildlife legend Sir David Attenborough. 

David started out as a writer for TV Times before becoming the title's deputy features editor and then features editor. During his time on TV Times, David also helped run the annual TV Times Awards. David is a huge Death in Paradise fan, although he's still failed to solve a case before the show's detective! He also loves James Bond and controversially thinks that Timothy Dalton was an excellent 007.

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