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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Secret Diary of a Call Girl: Season One (review)

“The first thing you should know about me is that I’m a whore,” says Belle, real name Hannah, real real name actress Billie Piper, who also happens to have played Rose, awesome human companion to the alien Time Lord known as the Doctor, on Doctor Who. From which springs much of the titillation factor of this British series. It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t know Doctor Who and doesn’t know the kind of nationwide insanity it inspires in the Brits, but it’s sort of like if Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island suddenly started turning tricks. The Doctor is a British institution — solid, reliable, decent, and trustworthy — and his companions are nice girls.
I think it’s still true in 2009 that nice girls don’t have sex for money. For a diamond ring, perhaps, but a straight-up exchange of cash? Only whores do that.

Which is why, I imagine, Piper headed straight from Doctor Who to a series with a name like Secret Diary of a Call Girl: to wash away that nice-girl taint before she got typecast so early in her career. And whoo, there’s no beating around the bush here. (Oh, dear: Did I just say that? I did, didn’t I?) Belle tells us — she talks to the camera a lot, and often throws us sardonic little looks at appropriate moments — that “I wasn’t abused by relatives, I’ve got no children to support, and I’ve never been addicted to anything.” In other words, she’s not a victim, she’s not desperate, and she does what she does purely out of choice. Because she loves money and she loves sex.

So, on to the titillation, right? Er, not so much. Oh, sure, I guess some fanboys will get turned on by the sight of Rose– um, I mean, Belle riding a bridle-wearing john or crushing her high heels into the back of her accountant, who, it turns out, is into humiliation. But these eight episodes — the entire first season; the series, about to start shooting its third season, airs on ITV in the U.K. and on Showtime in the U.S. — are mostly about Belle just… coping. Like how we all cope with our work, even if we love it. Belle may be coping with extensive and painful grooming routines, keeping the secret of her job from her friends and family, jealousy when a colleague poaches one of her regular clients, despair when a new client is disappointed with her, arguments with her manager, and creepy guys who won’t accept that there’s an etiquette even to paid relationships. But none of the coping is actually all that fascinating.

It is all rather more intimate about some things than we often hear discussed on television, like how if one condom is enough then you may not be having as much fun as you could be, or that waxing really hurts. But these are hardly insights that only a hooker could share with us, and yet I really don’t think the show is suggesting that all modern womanhood = hookerdom, either. I might have expected a bit of insight into why even a high-class hooker would have clients come right to her apartment. Do you really want them to know where you live, honey? But then again, what do I know about inviting total strangers into my house for purposes of prostitution?

But that’s it: I don’t know anything about inviting total strangers into my house for purposes of prostitution. Belle, presumably, does. Much as I like Belle, though — Piper (The Shadow in the North, Mansfield Park) really is an extraordinary screen presence — I don’t know why her story is allegedly of such profound interest that it deserves its own series. In the interview with Piper on Disc One, she says, “I think she’s an extraordinary woman and people should know about her. There are different sides to prostitution and that should also be spoken about.” I don’t really see that represented on the screen, though. (The series is based on the blog Belle de Jour, the anonymous writings of an alleged London call girl that also became a book [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.], which is also nowhere near as interesting as you’d think, either.)

I mean: There is no pretending that Belle isn’t a whore. She has lots of sex. And it’s fairly graphic, though in a nonpornographic kind of way that makes it look tediously like the job that it is. It’s just that it’s all so… sad. Belle tells us she likes sex, but it’s hard to see how or where. We know when she’s faking, which is often, and she’s got lots of advice for us on how to do a really good job of making a man think he’s turning you on. The biggest problem Belle has is one client who wants the real Hannah, not the phony Belle, and “the perfect partner,” she informs us, “is one where I never have to be myself.”

Herself is not, frankly, all that intriguing: Hannah doesn’t appear to have much beyond her secret life as Belle. And that’s really sad. But not sad enough to make me want more.


MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
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  • Interesting… I’ve heard the exact opposite from several places, enough to where I got ahold of both series to see if the hype was for real. I haven’t started watching yet, but I’m looking forward to it a little less now :(

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