Here’s what’s happening in the world of television for Wednesday, August 21. All times are Eastern.
Harlots (Hulu, 3:01 a.m.) and Mum (BritBox, new episodes arrive on Tuesdays): What do these two very different shows—one, an insightful drama about the inner workings of 18th-century brothels; the other, a sad, sweet sitcom about a widowed woman and a devoted lifelong friend—have in common? Well, both are British (half British, in the case of Hulu’s terrific Harlots), and both are smart, surprising, and funny. But all we really need to offer as recommendation for both is this: Both star the great Lesley Manville.
The third season of Harlots is ticking along, but the third (and final) season of Mum has already come to an end—that is, if you’re in the U.K. Here, episodes are being carefully doled out one by one on the streaming service BritBox (which boasts classic Doctor Who, among other things to recommend it), with the final episode set to arrive next Tuesday, August 27. As with most British series, the seasons are short; you could catch up and rewatch the first two seasons between now and then.
We spoke with Manville about both shows, as well as how it feels to have her Phantom Thread character live on as a beloved GIF.
The A.V. Club: What makes for a good will they/won’t they?
Lesley Manville: Well, I certainly think spinning it out over three seasons is a good thing—especially when you think that series one and series two, each of those series is spread over a year. So ours is a really slow will they/won’t they. But cleverly, season three is just six days. Season one, episode one starts with her burying her husband, so there’s quite a journey for her to go on. The will they/won’t they comes on very, very slowly. You’ve got to get to the end of season one [before anything happens]. I think that ended with a little look between them, and that was about it. So it’s hardly speedy.
AVC: Some of the people reading this won’t have seen any of Mum, so without giving away too much, how would you describe where Cathy and Michael [Peter Mullan] are at the beginning of this final season?
LM: Well, season two ends with them watching the fireworks and just holding hands. Season three starts in a very different way. I won’t say any more, but for me, season three is the best. I think we all felt after doing season one, “Well, how is he [writer-creator Stefan Golaszewski] ever going to top this?” Then he did with season two, and season three is just sublime. It ends on a high note, but I’m not saying how. It’s a will they/won’t they. They either will, or they won’t.
AVC: How do you find the comedy in grief and sorrow, especially when you’re playing the straight man?
LM: If you’d have said to me before Mum was in my life, “This is going to be a very warm comedy series that deals with grief and loss, and mother/son relationships, and sibling relationships, and death,” I’d have said, “Yeah, sure, this show is going to be funny, sure it is,” but it is! I really do think Stefan Golaszewski is a bit of a genius. I knew I couldn’t do a comedy series that’s all about, “Here’s the gag, here’s the joke.” I really just can’t do that. I’m not very good at it. But this couldn’t be more up my street if it tried, because it’s just about being truthful. It’s about observing Cathy as she’s observing the people around her. And yeah, that took some time, getting that to the right level.
In the first season I was tempted to color scenes with a kind of judgment, or criticism, because I couldn’t quite believe that Cathy wouldn’t. But I was quite rightly steered away from it by Stefan, and it was dead-right. She doesn’t judge people. She doesn’t want to make them feel humiliated or anything. She is an absorber, and a listener.
AVC: You’ve got these two different shows running concurrently, and they’re very different, and if you look at your résumé, it’s all very different—Cyril Woodcock one day, a pixie in Maleficent the next. Is there anything all these very different women might have in common?
LM: I suppose what links all those characters is Lesley Manville. But what interests me about them all is just what you said, that they’re completely different from each other. And that’s my thing, really. I want to be a chameleon. I love the fact that I play Lydia Quigley [on Harlots], who’s probably one of the most evil characters I’ve ever played, truly horrible and truly bad, and then also get to play Cathy. That is delicious. How lucky, how wonderful, to have those choices. I’ve spent my life trying to do that, pulling that off, to be able to play Lydia, hopefully successfully, and to play someone like Cathy. That’s what gets me through.
AVC: So when you pick up a script and you see something you’ve never done before, that’s a very good sign for you.
LM: It is, but it’s still got to be well-written. I’m not just going to do it for the sake of it. It starts and ends, always, with a script. And if the script is great, then that’s what hooks you in.
AVC: Dorothy Atkinson is also in Mum, but was also an essential part of Harlots, in a very different role. Did the two of you enjoy that contrast?
LM: Dorothy’s just wonderful. We met on Topsy-Turvy... but the real Dorothy Atkinson/Lesley Manville lovefest began with Mum. We did Mum, series one, and then we got Harlots. But the brilliant thing about the swapping is [her character is] pretty awful to Cathy in Mum, but in Harlots she plays this sort of Bible-bashing blind evangelist. And Lydia is so foul to her. We used to laugh so much because every time I was horrible to her in Harlots, I’d just quietly whisper, “Cathy’s revenge!”
AVC: Are you aware of the large presence Phantom Thread has in social media? What’s it like for those scenes to have taken on a new life?
LM: I am. I’m not on Twitter, and I’m only on Instagram to see pictures of my granddaughter and grandson, but I am aware of it because people told me, but I’m not witnessing it. So tell me what they’re saying. There’s quite a few scathing looks and good lines in that film, I’ve got to say. What is it? “Don’t pick a fight with me, you certainly won’t come out alive. I’ll go right through you. You’ll end up on the floor.” I mean that’s paraphrasing, but yes, great moments. [Ed. note: That is almost an exact quote, embedded below.] I’m glad of it. I’ll take it. I’ve heard that Cyril’s become a gay icon, and I love it. Listen, any appreciation for that film—which I adore, it’s very, very close to my heart, that movie—I love. It’s very neat, isn’t it? It’s very colored for me by the fact that I had 14 of the best weeks of my life making it, because every morning I got to go and film with Paul Thomas Anderson, and I love it. And there’s nothing else to say. I love it. I love that man.
This Way Up (Hulu, 3:01 a.m.): Let’s stick with Hulu and with great British actors, shall we?
Aisling Bea (The Fall) wrote and stars in this comedy, which follows an English-as-a-foreign-language teacher getting back on her feet after going through a “teeny little nervous breakdown.” Also in the cast: Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan, Outlander and Game Of Thrones alum Tobias Menzies, and Indira Varma, also of Game Of Thrones. Aasif Mandvi, who is not a British actor but is funny and good at his job, also appears.