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Retro Recap - Secret Diary of a Call Girl 1.01 (Spoilers)

As Showtime prepares to start their latest round of sex inspired shows, Masters of Sex, SpoilerTV’s Robin Smyth takes a look at one of their previous series, also about sex and also based on real life. Each week will be taking on two episodes and the initial criticisms of each while using the language and quotes native to the show.

"Sometimes it’s not the youngest or the richest clients you want or have the most in common with. For me, the perfect partner is one that I don’t have to be myself around."

Confession: When I started watching Secret Diary, I watched the first one or two episodes, stopped for over a year and picked up with season two on DVD before starting the series over.
"The first thing you should know about me is that I’m a whore."
Network: ITV/Showtime
The stars: Billie Piper (Belle/Hannah), Cherie Lunghi (Stephanie), Iddo Goldberg (Ben)
The genre: Dramady, Based on Real Events
The plot: Based on the real life blog of Belle de Jour, known as The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, Secret Diary follows Hannah by day and her real world alter ego Belle when the lights go down. Only that’s not quite right, call girls get called at all times of the day and night but the one thing they have in common is standards. This series gives the unique perspective of both a woman trying to make it on her own terms and a call girl known to only the best clients. It’s how she balances the act that makes it so fascinating to watch.
"Be fabulous, but forgettable."
The Sex: The scenes themselves are not even graphic compared to the fair on HBO (lookin’ at you Game of Thrones and True Blood). Even compared with Showtime’s own Dexter, the scenes seem par for the course, if more frequently occurring. And in terms of full-frontal, I can guarantee, the programming on the BBC shows more of both men and women (just look at the fabulous Christopher Isherwood film from a few years back).
The Clients: A Scottish man who wants Belle to fantasize about being on a farm, in a field, and in the stable. On a second pass through, Belle puts a saddle on him and rides him like a pony.
An English bloke who can’t relax and eventually dashes out awkwardly. After calling him back, Belle gets a result dressed far down from her usual fair.
"You should also know that this isn’t the real me"
The Summary: Belle makes no bones about telling you exactly what she does and the easiest way to spot a call girl in a modern age where even grandmas wear “fuck-me-pumps”. After the title sequence, Belle starts off her day with a happy hop to her kitchen before she tells her audience that she can only tell you about her experiences, not someone else’s. She wasn’t abused, doesn’t have kids to support, and had never done drugs. She’s very high class. Her motives for her job are sex and money but she’ll understand if you don’t believe the sex part. What she really likes is not having to answer to a boss—aside from Stephanie.
Stephanie tells her to get ready for a client with little to no notice. Belle then explains how she keeps her personal life separate from her professional one. When the client arrives says she keeps control thru body language before counting the money telling the viewers how she would tip the agency to a bad client if she had one. She then gives the client a kit to make sure he’s hygienic before explaining her own preparation once the client arrives.
She asks the Scottish client about something that turns him on. After a job well done, she explains she tells everyone, including her best friend, that she’s a night time legal secretary which is “so boring no one ever asks about it.”
During a brief interlude from her job, she and Ben pretend to want to buy a house.
Belle sizes up her next client based on the hotel he chose. Of course having been so certain about him, she’s immediately proven wrong. She has a “first” in that she can’t please him.
She goes to visit Stephanie, a shrewd madam. Stephanie passes around a photo of a dodgy bloke. Belle asks if Daniel, her fail from earlier, has called again. He has and asked for another girl. She gets her man “without the miracle of hair or makeup.” He pays willingly and asks why she wears shoes in her own flat. Belle takes this to mean he has a foot fetish. He claims otherwise before attempting the act with her again. They succeed. He tells her about a previous girlfriend fail. Belle mentions her sister being nine months pregnant and accidentally slips as to her real name.
At the end of the afternoon, she calls Stephanie telling her not to send Daniel around any longer as he wants Hannah not Belle. She then turns her attention back to her first client of the episode.
"I would order something but I’d be afraid you’d take 40% of my food."
The Challenges: Getting the viewers to be invested in a show that is unapologetic about a love of whoring around.
Initial Reaction: After the first episode I watched and the frank way it presented not only sex but sexuality, I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue. At the same time, I knew I had started a new TV affair.
Review Reaction: It’s striking to see how much she talk about sex in this first episode. As the series progresses it becomes much more of a show not a tell experience. The first episode feels sort of empty from a story telling perspective although the acting and narrative are well woven. The whole affair doesn’t feel seedy, as it shouldn’t.
"There’s as many different kinds of working girls as there are people but I can tell you about me."
The critics: When the show first aired, it was attacked by feminists saying the show objectifies women. Others claimed that it was “determinedly manipulative, tacky, soulless approach to a subject that is, by its nature, always going to be up for exploitation” and that “Secret Diary is easily Piper's worst career move to date.” But the thing of it is, with that last swipe, what the show is attacked for is the very reason I love it: Belle is not demeaned for choosing prostitution. (Even my beloved Justified falls into that trope.)
Here's why I disagree with both the reviewer from the Daily Mail (a generally conservative/sensationalist paper) and The Guardian (a generally liberal/well respected news paper: The series shows a woman in control of her sexuality and how she is constantly having to live with other people’s judgments of her. Going forward with minimal spoilers, in S2EP01, Hannah tells her audience how she can’t tell her family what she does for a living because they’d never understand. Meeting her sister again in S3EP01, it becomes obvious just how true that statement was and how hard it is to lie to everyone you know. Over the course of the series Hannah is shown to have three boyfriends, each different from each other and each starting from different aspects of her life. As you might expect, none of those relationship actually work out the way she hopes but they all fail for different reasons.
Despite the (various) assertions the series glamorizes the craft, I would argue it de-stigmatizes sexuality, Belle tries her best to make all of her clients kinks, wants, and desires happen as long as neither party is intentionally injured and it is enjoyable to both. As for the dangers that the Daily Mail article accuses of being brushed out, the first two (diseases and bad clients) are explained by the exposition: she is not a common hooker and she doesn’t pick clients up from off the streets. There are protocols that have to be followed to book an engagement with Belle and ones that have to be followed once they arrive that prevent disease and most bad johns. For the clients that may go by the wayside, she and Stephanie have a subtle protocol for letting one another know something is not working.
Based on DM's comments, I can tell you the reviewer did not see all of season one, because Belle does eventually get a bad john (but that’s another recap). Police records, another complaint, are explained without mentioning by the middle of season four with a clearer explanation given in the finale. And the last assertion that insinuates that all hookers would be on drugs? Do your job. She specifically mentions never having done drugs in the post title sequence. It was while she was still in her t-shirt and shorts, not even dressed up yet. And besides, not every woman who sells herself was forced into it nor do they have to hate their job.
And I left this for last on purpose simply because it's ridiculous. Objectifying women? Hardly. I saw more of Belle’s client Daniel (full backside) than I did her (in underwear and dresses for most of it, well positioned arms/sheets one part).
"How does anyone ever afford to buy a house in London?"
The social relevancy: If feminism is about women being able to chose jobs they truly enjoy, to have equal pay, and to be able choose when to have a family, then why is Hannah's choice to be a prostitute which she says herself is because she loves "sex and money" and less of a feminist goal than her sister at nine months pregnant. Did Hannah choose her job? Yes. Is she happy with it? Very. Is she in control of when she starts a family? Is she any less in control with her strict hygiene rules than a woman who makes a drunkly informed decision at a bar?
"The surest way to tell a prostitute is to look for the woman in the designer suit."
The Rating: 5/5 kisses as a series.
The first episode: 4—Intriguing but a lot in your face.
"I don’t mind what you call me, that’s just semantics."
Well, what do you think? Would you book this show again or will you find another way to spend your time? Until next time…

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