There are few actors as famous for their tricky reputations – certainly not female ones. But Samantha Morton quite openly admits being known for, ‘Being a nightmare and creating problems.’
Brought up in poverty, spending most of her life in care homes where she was abused both sexually and emotionally, she’s a scrapper. She is also known for being compellingly brilliant, with two Oscar nominations and a Bafta to her name. The screen loves her intensity and she never goes for cosy roles.
So, it’s surprising to find the woman across from me – albeit on a computer screen as we are talking over Zoom – is so amiable the warmth shines out from her. As many of us now know, communication can be stilted when you are talking over a computer screen, but she makes it easy. Sitting on her bed in a casual jeans and jumper ensemble, the 43-year-old is articulate and smiley with deep dimples. And she has plenty of fascinating things to say about the BBC’s bawdy new drama Harlots.
Written and directed by women, the romp through the sexual mores of Regency England, seen through the eyes of two female brothel owners is a fun, silly and occasionally deeply serious drama. It is one where Samantha, alongside co-star Lesley Manville, is top of the call sheet; the star. It is a far cry from her first big role in a drama which was also about prostitutes.
Her difficult reputation, she believes, comes partially from her behaviour on her first major series, Band of Gold, the show which would first make her famous. A 16-year-old still living in care, she was hired to play a 15-year-old drug addicted prostitute in the 1995 ITV hit series which was watched by 15million people.
It was a different age in terms of how female actresses were treated on set and she was, perhaps, too vulnerable to be taking on such a demanding part full of nasty sex scenes. ‘I remember I would be sobbing in my trailer about some of the things I had to do,’ she says. ‘The wardrobe girls would try and help me and say, ‘put plasters on your nipples so you don’t feel as naked.’ But I would have to do sex scenes in front of crews of 30 men smoking and watching.
‘I was vulnerable and because I came from a rough background, the only way I knew to get my way was to be tough because nobody ever taught me another way. With hindsight, and having directed, I think some of what I was going through could have been navigated in a different way.
‘Nobody was mean on purpose but nobody said I could say ‘no’. Once I said ‘no’ – and maybe there was another way of saying no – I was labelled difficult and I got a reputation for being tricky. Things have changed now. As I’ve got more successful, I’ve learned to ask for options; ‘could there be this or could there be that? Could I have a body double?’ The industry is changing for the better which is good because I had some really awful experiences.’
Coming back to play a prostitute in new show Harlots feels like she has come ‘full circle’ she laughs. But now things are very different. ‘Sex scenes are done in a dignified and gentle way,’ she says. ‘Sets are closed to anyone who doesn’t need to be there and there is a lot of respect.’
Growing up in Nottingham she didn’t see women being treated with much respect. She spent most of her childhood being fostered or in children’s homes. Her parents, who separated when she was two had nine children between them. Her father was violent and spent time in prison; her mother had a breakdown and couldn’t cope. Her stepfather was an alcoholic who served time for attempted murder.
She was first sexually abused when she was 13 by two workers in her care home. When she tried to tell police and social workers what was happening no one seemed to listen. She first spoke out about the abuse in 2014 after the story of what had happened to girls, many of them in care homes, in Rotherham first came out. After the sexual abuse, Samantha spent a lot of time running away from the home and started sleeping rough aged 14. But while she found salvation in acting – one social worker had signed her up to a drama workshop – other girls she knew turned to prostitution for real.
‘I don’t think you can call it prostitution when you are under the legal age of consent,’ she says. ‘But the shocking thing is that it always has gone on and still goes on.’
Harlots, which is airing on BBC2, is a very different fish from Band of Gold. Set in the high camp time of big wigs, white faces and ornate clothing also it feels more like a hot-blooded rip-roaring period romp than a hard-hitting gritting tale. It is possibly one of the sauciest dramas the BBC has ever aired. But at the same time, it takes an empathetic look into the lives of prostitutes; the way women were treated, have always been treated, and gives them a new dimension.
That’s partially why Samantha, who hadn’t worked in television since she was 19 due to her successful film career, agreed to come back to the small screen to star as brothel madam Margaret Wells for the drama which has been a hit in America, running for three series.
‘Harlots is about women, the heartbreak, the cruel reality that is being a woman, the choices we are forced to make and why,’ she says. ‘Yet we still have grace, courage, hope and mostly, love. The world for women then was brutal. It still is.’
The series was inspired by Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, a guidebook to London’s prostitutes which was published between 1757 and 1795 promising the ‘inside knowledge’ from one Jack Harris, the ‘Pimp-General of All of England.’
It suggested that prostitution guarded against the seduction of young women by providing an outlet for frustrated married men – ignoring the fact that many of the women went into prostitution because they had no choice.
A sort of Georgian version of Penthouse, it featured illustrations and graphic descriptions of more than 200 prostitutes and was phenomenally successful – with 8,000 readers it made the equivalent of £250,000 a year.
At the time an astonishing one in every five London women were somehow connected to the sex industry including, occasionally, some sex deprived middle class wives who joined brothels for the day as a way of getting some thrills.
Margaret Wells is a former prostitute who now owns a brothel. ‘She is a survivor,’ says Samantha. ‘She has found a language and behaviour for herself akin to her environment. She is what she is because of her surroundings. There is a lot of vulnerability about her but she also has some very hard choices.’
She also sells the virginity of beautiful eldest daughter Charlotte (played by Downton Abbey star Jessica Findlay Brown) when she was just 12 – the age of consent. She then encourages her to sign a contract to idiotic aristocrat Sir George Howard. Charlotte is happy to be kept by George – she has more jewels and beautiful clothes than she could wish for – but baulks at signing the contract because she still thinks she can do better.
Margaret’s main rival is her former employer Lydia Quigley, played by Lesley Manville, a conniving character who runs a more refined and upmarket establishment – although they essentially do the same job. ‘Margaret hates Lydia Quigley,’ says Samantha. ‘She doesn’t want anything to do with her. However, the history they share means on some strange level there’s also love, in the same way an abused child might still love the parent.’
These two rival madams, as well as Charlotte, are based on the stories of some former prostitutes who become wealthy – and often use that wealth to set up their own brothels.
Harris’s List includes details of several women who all made a fortune through their trade. Ironically, it was thanks to the Harris List that London prostitute Charlotte Hayes was able to finance her own brothel. Like the Charlotte of the story, her virginity was auctioned off to the highest bidder and she was adored by the aristocratic set. The lover of Harris’s List author Samuel Derrick, when he died in 1769, he left her his fortune. She used the money to set up a string of whorehouses, training up girls to become ‘courtesans of the highest order’. One of her brothels was called The Nunnery where politicians, aristocrats and even royalty would take part in orgies.
Becky LeFevre became an actress but was financed by one of her rich clients. He bought her a large house and she started renting rooms out to other prostitutes and soon found herself a wealthy lady. Some of the aristocrats even fell in love with the girls they had paid; prostitute Harriet Powell married an MP, Kenneth Mackenzie, the 1st Earl of Seaforth. And Elizabeth Armistead wed Foreign Secretary Charles James Fox.
The first series was first briefly shown on ITV Encore but never made it onto terrestrial television. However, it was lapped up by American audiences. ‘It was strange but the show felt hidden in England and my family couldn’t even find it,’ says Samantha, a mother of three whose daughter Esme has followed her into the industry. ‘I don’t know why, maybe we were ahead of our time. If it had been a show with male film stars like Liam Neeson or Colin Farrell, they would have made a huge song and dance but because it was women in skirts, they didn’t understand what they’d made. But it’s huge in America.
‘I was once sitting in Mexican restaurant and the chef recognised my laugh from the kitchen and came out and said, ‘Margaret!’. I couldn’t walk down the street in Georgia without people asking questions about it. But in the UK no one has seen it. My hope is that people tune in and see how brilliant it is because its one of the best things I’ve ever done.
‘It has a wealth of fascinating history, has a good old-fashioned murder mystery, and reveals some of what it is like being involved in the oldest trade of all.’
- Harlots BBC2 9pm on Wednesdays.