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SEASON REVIEW: Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Season 1

Secret Diary of a Call Girl is a British half-hour series that just finished up airing its third season (or third ‘series’ in common British parlance). It stars Billie Piper as Hannah Baxter, a young woman who works as a high-class call girl under the name Belle de Jour. Part sex comedy, part educational tour of the call girl trade, and part character study, its a rather unique experience, albeit one that takes some effort at first to appreciate. I’ll glance over the first season in this post, though I’ve screened the first three seasons already.

A note: As Belle/Hannah uses ‘callgirl’, ‘escort’, ‘prostitute’ and ‘whore’ without judgement, I will endeavour to do the same. Now, after the jump, I’ll take a deeper look at this salacious and appealing show…

Upon watching the first few episodes of Secret Diary of a Call Girl, it is easy to believe that its lead character, Hannah Baxter and escort alter ego Belle de Jour (Billie Piper), is a lightweight character; a one-dimensional curator of escort anecdotes, offering tips and tricks of the trade for amusement and little else. Her enthusiasm for the sex trade seems too easy, too useful to build a series on, and because of the overwhelming influence of Bell’s voice it is hard to see the flaws in our lead. This was my first judgement when the show began in 2007: after viewing 3 episodes I saw it as genial but, ultimately, flat.

I was wrong.

Secret Diary of a Callgirl is a show that takes its time building a world before diving into the complexities of its lead, letting Belle take us on a few simple adventures before we things get complicated. This allows the show to showcase the culture of the callgirl, something as foreign and fantastical to the common viewer as Middle Earth, requiring not only the rules and codew0rds but also reorienting the audience to see it, as Hannah does, as a fun and rewarding job. The show meanders through this worldbuilding for the show’s first four episodes, building a relationship under the surface with best mate Ben (Iddo Goldberg) almost as an afterthought. It is in episode 5, after Hannah has revealed her second life to Ben, that the show begins to really kick into gear, both in the stories it tells and how it tells them.

With another character in on Belle’s secrets, it gives her a foil to play off of; one large issue with the opening salvo of episodes was that Belle had no such foil to bounce off of properly, other than her madam Stephanie. (Cherie Lunghi). Once Ben knows her secret, she has support and conversation, and also the show allows us to see more of the Hannah hiding underneath the gleaming sheen of Belle de Jour. It quickly becomes clear that Hannah is not just a ‘callgirl Mary Sue’, designed largely to make escorting palateable, but rather a deeper character who, while contining depth, is ultimately exactly the type of person served by the callgirl lifestyle. The series is neither a polemic against prostitution, nor is it a blind defense of the controversial line of work; it is an exploration of what it means to be an escort, as well as an outline of all the potential good and evil that comes with living within its lines. Belle enjoys her work, yes, and also has to decide whether it is fulfilling enough to sacrifice for the love and acceptance of the others in her life. This struggle isn’t presented as a flaw in Belle, but as an aspect of her personality that forces her to make decisions about her life in order to search for happiness, just like anyone else.

Episode 1.5 is the first episode to properly fuse developing Hannah and establishing the prostitute’s world. As she’s paired with another girl for a threesome with a longtime regular, who was also her first customer as a callgirl, Belle begins reflecting on her own relationship to the man. This allows her to reflect on her history at a time wherein Ben is starting to ask about this new world, as well as bring out some of the struggles in Belle’s heart. She knows she’s ‘just’ a prostitute, but when a regular customer switches to her new friend, she can’t help but abandon her new fried out of hurt feelings. She feels damaged, insulted, inadequate: why was she no longer good enough? Despite knowing a client’s tastes are cyclical and bound to change, she still feels the pain of the abandoning of, if not a lover, someone she’d very much appreciated.

The stories, in general, are much stronger after 1.5. The three remaining episodes of season one are just as strong, offering a core conceit in each that works for compelling viewing and asks important questions. In Episode 1.6, Belle’s career is almost flatlined by one negative review, and pursues a suitor in a non-work capacity. In Episode 1.7, Ben tries to understand Belle by joining as a partner in one of her engagements. In Episode 1.8, Belle is given the chance to become a courtesan: a mistress to the rich, paid handsomely.

Each of these episodes has a question at its core beyond the mechanics of the sex work. 1.6 gives a sense of how precarious work as a callgirl can be, and explores exactly what Belle gets out of her job beyond the sex. 1.7 gives us to see an engagement through Ben’s eyes, and demonstrates how even one labeled ‘normal’ by the series (one who was even very perturbed by Belle’s work) can do the work, even if Ben doesn’t pursue it again. And finally, the last offers a consideration that’s universal: Is what you want what you really want? Belle is offered a prestigious position in her career path, but finds herself missing her supposedly-lower former job for a number of very understandable reasons.

When entering a series like this, the question must immediately ask: What type of person immediately takes to prostitution as happily and skilfully as Hannah does? Going into it, one begins with the view that Hannah is in the place of the ‘everywhore’, such as Nancy Botwin being mostly just a ‘single mom’ when Weeds began, or how Walter White was merely a mild-mannered ‘everyman’ figure when Breaking Bad began. But a good writer knows their character is not an everyperson – because every person is specific, with strengths and flaws and messes of their very own. Nancy Botwin is the Daredevil Girl, constantly throwing herself into the whirlwind to feed something in herself she refuses to acknowledge; Walter White is a bundle of repressed rage and power/martyr complexes just waiting to be unleashed. And Hannah Baxter is a headstrong, selfish and ultimately admirable young woman who wants a better life than the drudgery she sees everyone else in her world working through.

The show is flawed, of course, with episodes occasionally either not hitting the mark or feeling off-balance, but the show definitely works on a different level once a cast chemistry is able to build itself around its lead. It’s a series well worth digging into.

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