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'Call Girl' recap: Off to a great tart

On the U.S. premiere of the controversial British series, Hannah reveals the ins and outs of being a high-priced whore

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Billie Piper, Secret Diary of a Call Girl

Secret Diary of a Call Girl

type:
TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
run date:
06/16/08
performer:
Billie Piper, Iddo Goldberg
broadcaster:
Showtime Networks Inc.
genre:
Drama

‘Call Girl’ recap: Off to a great tart

”The first thing you should know about me is that I’m a whore.”

Hannah — the high-priced prozzie in Secret Diary of a Call Girl who occupies the attractive and talented body of Doctor Who‘s Billie Piper — has no secrets…from us, at least. We know how she turns up for an appointment (in a designer suit). We know that she glides past hotel reception (”look like you know where you’re going”). We know what she charges (a lot and up front). We even know how she convinces clients she fancies them (lube). And we know why she does it: ”I love sex and I love money…I’m fundamentally lazy…what I really like is being my own boss.” But Hannah’s parents, sister, and best friend, Ben, have no clue how she rakes in the dough. They think she’s a legal secretary. A very well paid, ultra hush-hush, has-a-lot-of-free-time-in-the-afternoons legal secretary. Denial is not just a river, apparently. And I’m talking to you, Hannah (a.k.a. ”Belle” when you’re working), as much as anyone else. I sense Ben has a hunch — he’s got to notice the bling in your pad. And though we haven’t met your mom or pops yet, I bet they suspect something, too. Hence, the drama.

Or some of it.

My favorite part of Belle de Jour: The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, the best-selling, X-rated, ”happy hooker” memoir that is Call Girl‘s source material, didn’t make it into last night’s opener. No, it’s not Belle de Jour‘s A-to-Z of English sex work, the graphic descriptions of fisting and anal, her sexually adventurous, understanding beau (yep, in the book she’s got one and he knows) or the exchange of Martin Amis references with a john. (All of which makes it a prickly subway read, and I’m including Amis in there — some crazies think he’s overrated.) It’s when Belle warns us never to use ”whoring” to describe any other profession but her own: ”Many of my friends will tell you how temping for a year or ending up in sales is the equivalent to prostitution. It’s not. I know this because I’ve been a temp and I’ve f—ed for money, and they are in no way similar. Not even the same planet.” She’s as right as rain: Say what you want about fetching Starbucks for the man, it’s a lot different than making it with Hannah’s first punter on the show, a fat, middle-aged ex-farmhand who looks like a sideburned refugee from Bob Hoskins’ gang in The Long Good Friday. Then again, Hannah enjoys riding him, quite literally, like a horse. I’m not sure anyone is that keen on getting coffee.

NEXT: Unhappy hooker

But Hannah’s no media original. Never mind the prostitutes that came before (hello, Julia Roberts in those PVC boots) or after her (as you read this, 90210 guru Darren Star is working on a tart-with-a-heart series for HBO). Call Girl also has a Sex and the City/Carrie Bradshaw aftertaste that I hope it spits out more often than it swallows. Think about it: Single girl, loves sex, lives in an expensive city in a great colorful apartment with a double-sided walk-in closet and a dazzling array of clothes, which she finances with one of those jobs no one really believes exists. For Carrie, it’s being a columnist who can buy designer shoes. For Hannah, it’s being a call girl who likes it. And that’s where it gets a bit…well…toothy.

Call Girl had U.K. critics spitting tacks over its Zen depiction of the world’s oldest and most controversial profession. Happy hookers with a university education who ”choose” to go into prostitution are so rare that some skeptics don’t even believe Hannah’s real-life counterpart, pseudonymous Belle de Jour author Belle de Jour, exists. (For clarity, let’s refer to Piper’s character as ”Hannah,” and author/blogger Belle de Jour as ”Belle,” from now on.) Her identity still is the London literary world’s most-guarded secret. There’s speculation that Belle’s blog was created by a group of writers, that she’s a man, that she wasn’t really a prozzie. But obviously she/they/he know a lot about French literature and cinema — Belle’s nom de plume is from the eponymous Joseph Kessel novel-cum-Luis Buñuel film — and has a fantastic turn of phrase: ”Escort, hooker, prostitute, whore, I don’t mind what you call me. That’s just semantics.”

The question I can see being asked about Hannah in the States is the same one inspired by Weeds‘ Nancy Botwin: Why doesn’t she just get a real job? I, for one, don’t know (and don’t totally believe Hannah’s protestations that she always likes the sex). But finding out the reason is much more psychologically interesting to me than not having this show at all. And if there are women like Hannah who choose this line of work, don’t their stories deserve to be told as much as anyone else’s? And as for whether or not Call Girl truly glamorizes prostitution, I’m on the fence. Sure, her flat is phat. She’s beautiful and disease-free. She hasn’t been attacked by a john — yet. But who would truly want to live like that? For one, any woman will tell you that having sex that often is a cystitis nightmare. Plus, even if Hannah seems contented, read between the lines and you’ll know she’s amiss.

NEXT: Service men

I’m not just talking about how Hannah has to stop servicing that cute punter Daniel because she slips and tells him her real name. Or about how she obviously is still in love with Ben, but won’t admit it. I’m referring to how Hannah doesn’t want to connect with people at all — how she says she likes London because of ”its anonymity,” how she refuses to leave Ben a phone message when she so clearly needs to talk, and how she claims ”the best partner is one I don’t have to be myself with.” Not allowing herself to ”get close” or be ”the real me” isn’t a call girl’s rule for Hannah (like it was for Julia in Pretty Woman), it’s a twisted compulsion. And that’s why I love the show.

Well that, and because it got Billie Piper back on U.S. television. If you know (and already love) Billie, just bear with me here. If you don’t, make up for it now by watching the video for her 1998 British single ”Because We Want To” (one of my colleague Michael Slezak’s most guilty pleasures). Check out ShakespeaRe-Told, adaptations of four plays, and her recent Mansfield Park to see her do the classics. And for Pete’s sake, get started on the 2005 season of Doctor Who. I’ve been following Billie for what seems like forever, so expect a lot of clips and news on her in the next few weeks. Last year she married one of my favorite thespians, Laurence Fox, scion of the Fox acting dynasty — dad is James Fox — and costar of Mystery!‘s über-excellent Inspector Lewis. Hey, while you’re at it, you should check it out, too, on PBS.

Call Girl is the perfect role for Billie, methinks: (a) She can more than handle its complexity and (b) Her dazzling array of teeth works great for both sides of her character. (As Belle, she’s a wolf. As Hannah, she’s a chipmunk.) I won’t even start on Cherie Lunghi, the actress who plays the madam (you may remember her from Hotel Babylon) or Iddo Goldberg (the fit Israeli actor who portrays Ben). They’re wonderful additions to just about everything. I’m just thankful that Showtime imported Call Girl without recasting it like its sister network CBS is doing with Worst Week of My Life or ABC did with Life on Mars. Now, if some channel could just start airing Strange and The Fixer. An Anglophile can dream, can’t she?

Anyway, I’m stoked to hear what you guys think. Too racy? Not racy enough? Are you with the U.K. reviewers who balked at the show? Or part of the millions who made it ITV2’s highest-rated series ever? Adore Billie? Or hate her? (If so, get ready to explain yourself.) Got any recommendations for other Brit shows you want to share with me? Ready for next week when Hannah visits an upscale orgy and then, afterwards, her family?