The Secret Diary of a Call Girl Reviewed - Part 1

Many people were intrigued when The Secret Diary of a Call Girl hit British screens back in 2007. Would it tell the truth about the life of high class prostitutes or would it be a letdown? Starring Billie Piper, one of the UK's best loved young actresses, it was a world away from her portrayal of Dr Who's assistant, however it certainly gave her the recognition and us the promise of her becoming a very versatile actress.

Aired on ITV 2 between 2007 and 2011, The Secret Diary of a Call Girl was based on a blog and books about a high class London escort, which were published under the pseudonym 'Belle de Jour'.  Belle later 'came out' as Dr. Brooke Magnanti, a research scientist in her thirties. The series starred Billie Piper in the lead role of Hannah, a university graduate who led an exciting but sometimes dangerous double life as a high-class call girl in London. The TV series was written by Lucy Prebble, and has often been compared to the American series Sex and the City, as it approached the whole issue of prostitution and sex with a humorous edge. However, that's not to say that it didn't tackle some of the main issues surrounding prostitution as the series progressed.  

Introduced to the viewers accompanied by an excerpt from the track 'You know I'm no good' by the late but great Amy Winehouse, our first glimpse of Hannah is as she's sitting applying her make-up and getting dressed to meet a client. We see her transformation from Hannah, the 'normal' young woman and university student, to Belle, the upmarket London escort, and follow her life as she tries to combine her professional and personal life, with help from her best friend, Ben, whom she uses as a sounding board. As one of the only people who knows about her secret life, he's the one she turns to when she needs someone to talk to, however her profession does occasionally cause friction between them. The whole series is narrated by Hannah, so we get to not only 'see' her life, but we also get an insight into her thoughts about who she is, and what she does.

As the series progresses, we watch as Hannah becomes an expert at leading a double life. Well educated, eloquent and intelligent, she enjoys her job as an escort, and she particularly enjoys the lifestyle that earning such high sums of money gives her access to. With such a fertile imagination, it's hardly surprising that she specialises in role-playing fantasies. In the first series we find her working for a Madame, played by the always elegant Cherie Lunghi. Lunghi's character is rich, ultra-glamorous and was once a call girl, so she knows exactly what the life as a London escort is like. She also possesses a sharp sense of humour and a cynical attitude which is used to great effect when dealing with her 'girls', and giving them advice.

What did the critics think of The Secret Diary of a Call Girl?

Overall, the series was well received by the critics. Perceived as a fascinating and quality drama, the success of the series was in a large part down to the Billie Piper's portrayal of Belle. Entertainment Weekly, said that the way she talks into the camera was a stroke of genius and that her 'straightforward, conspiratorial manner' was the 'way a prostitute who's really good at her job would talk to a client'. However, according to the Telegraph, the show focused too much on Piper's character, saying that all the other characters were more like cardboard cut-outs and not at all engaging. This is hardly surprising as the original diary was very much about Belle's experiences, and her feelings of how she was living her life.

Of course, as the series was based on the profession of prostitution, it received negative criticism from women's rights groups and feminists, who claimed that work of this nature objectified women. It was also accused of glamorising and misrepresenting prostitution, with some critics saying that they could hardly imagine any women entering the 'game' from their own free will, suggesting that they think that all escorts, call girls and prostitutes have been forced into the profession. However, according to Belle herself, she loves sex, she loves money and the high life, so prostitution was a natural choice. This, of course, may be a natural choice if you do end up as a high class prostitute out of choice, but it doesn't seem a natural career choice for women who sell their bodies on street corners.

Interestingly, Piper hit back at the critics and defended Belle's position, saying that the press and media loved to expose the public to the drug-fuelled, sex trafficking side of prostitution, but that they didn't like to admit that there are intelligent, middle-class women out there who have made a conscious and informed decision to sell 'themselves' and who enjoy the kind of life that they have chosen. It also seems that the show's writers and producers had taken the criticism on board and by series two we see them bringing some of the less glamorous aspects of escorting out into the open, with the show dealing with serious issues such as the potential for rape within prostitution.

However, it seemed that it was the conflict between fantasy and reality that disturbed some critics most about the series. While there was no doubting that there was a strong element of truth at the core of the Belle de Jour blog and her subsequent best-selling books that the series is based on, as a drama series it takes an individual's experience and tries to create a fantasy out of it. The woman behind the Belle de Jour Blog, Brooke Magnanti, claims that her experience of prostitution was in the main, positive, and who are we to doubt her word? However, the series refashions her reality and dishes it up as fantasy and romance, when in reality it was probably neither romantic or the stuff of fantasies. Furthermore, it was claimed that the script was weak, and the secondary characters were under developed.

But what did the viewers think?

Nevertheless, while the TV critics may have given the series a rather lukewarm, and sometimes totally negative reception, the viewers loved it. Whether it was because it was controversial, and explored a secretive world where many of us would love to be a fly on the wall, or because it was actually rather entertaining, the series ran for four years and attracted many fans into the bargain. Furthermore, it put Billie Piper firmly on the map as a talented actress capable of portraying both comedy and serious roles with great aplomb.

And so onto what the viewers thought, because after all, that's what's important. While professional critics may be more eloquent with their reviews, we should always read their thoughts with one eye on their motivations.

According to one guy from England, although the way the series was filmed detracted from the content, giving the whole show a slightly low budget feel, he definitely enjoyed the series, describing it as a 'deliciously wicked drama', with no-holds barred. Pleasantly surprised at the bravery of the show, due to the relatively graphic imagery, he did say that despite all the sexual content, any evidence of eroticism was sadly lacking. He praised Piper for her stellar performance, saying that she was equally likeable as both Hannah and her 'late-night alter ego', and that she'd turned what he thought was a very 'light' script into something worth watching.

Another 'Secret Diary' fan called the show, 'honest, frank and very funny!' And that's probably the saving grace of this series, in that it treats the whole subject in a light hearted way. The reviewer, from Scotland, claimed that they found the show scarily honest, and that it was very similar to a book that they'd read a few years back by Nancy Chan, called 'The Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl'. It seems that while high-class escorts might be imaginative in bed, they lack imagination when it comes to choosing titles for their books, although both books were said to be graphic, witty and funny.  Once again, it seems that Billie Piper made the show for this viewer, and that her character came across as both likeable and realistic. On the negative side, the reviewer claims that despite being open-minded, they found several of the scenes shocking, particularly the one where she was talking as she gave a blow-job. Isn't that something all prostitutes do?

It seems that most positive reviews were based around the fact that the series was fun. One reviewer from Canada admits to being rather scandalised when they watched the first episode. Well, not many viewers do expect such explicit content from a light-hearted TV show, however they found themselves becoming absorbed in Belle's character and her life, stating that 'while the life of a prostitute seems anything but glamorous in modern society, in this show 'it was portrayed in a fun and fresh way'.

One thing that most reviewers did agree on, was the quality of Billie Piper's performance, with a viewer from the UK saying that 'Billie is great, and that 'her timing and playing to the camera are excellent'. She's also described as 'sultry, naughty and very good'. Another female viewer from the UK stated that Piper is a very special actress and that she has the ability to make you believe, to make you cry and to make you smile. She goes on to say that she's a very believable performer, and that she plays the part of Belle so well that you almost begin to feel a little bit jealous of her. Hardly surprising, as the series does show the life of a high-class prostitute in a very alluring light.

The reviewers also agreed that the world of high-class prostitution is a world that gives rise to intrigue and fascination.  One viewer from Petersburg in Virginia, particularly enjoyed the fact that you saw more than just Belle's escapades as a call girl and that, in addition to the sex scenes, the viewers were given an insight into the emotional issues Hannah faced reconciling her life as a prostitute, through the way in which she narrates each episode.

One minor criticism came from a viewer in the UK who thought that the 30 minute time slot was not long enough to show the progression of the narrative. This particular viewer would have also liked to have seen more interactions between the agent (played by Cherie Lunghi) and her girls.

So have we tempted you to go and  hunt down copies of the series? Or would you like to hear more about what the viewers thought of the Secret Diary of a Call Girl? Come back next time to read more reviews and find out about some of the situations that Belle finds herself in, as one of the most well known escorts in London.