Series Premiere: Secret Diary of a Call Girl – “Pilot”


June 16th, 2008

Billie Piper, best known to audiences as the Doctor’s first companion Rose on the rebooted Doctor Who, took her time away from that series to take on a very different role. Secret Diary of a Call Girl, a British series, is airing on Showtime after their acquisition of the show’s first eight episodes. As the story of an upscale female prostitute, one could draw a number of similarities with its lead-in Weeds, where a mother is forced into the drug trade to support her family. Of course, those similarities would be seemingly off-base, but only at first glance and if we take the narrator’s word for it.

What sets Hannah (or “Belle”) apart from Nancy (at first) is that she likes what she does: she did it by choice, certainly seems to relish in the life she has before her, and as we’re introduced to the character she seems to have everything figured out. Of course, that’s a rather blatant simplification: while the show’s pilot is admittedly quite slight, it does turn around our whole notion of her character by at the very least letting us know that her self-defined lifestyle is not quite as sustainable as she makes it out to be. And the pilot, and the series it launches, is better off for it.

We’re introduced to a lot of rules by Hannah through direct address to the audience: she keeps her two lives separate (right down to clothing), she always stands when they sit, she insists on hygiene for all parties, and she has her apartment divided into two separate parts: one for Belle and one for Hannah. We see her life with her former flame Ben, who knows nothing about her real job (presuming she’s a legal assistant), and we see her seemingly enjoying everything about the life she’s chosen out of love of sex and being too lazy to do anything else.

Of course, that can’t last for long; the entire point is the episode is demonstrating how a single client who falls outside of the normal framework (Retirees with low self esteem, men with secret fantasies they need to investigate) can wreak complete havoc on those divisions. Young Daniel is age-appropriate, turned off by the makeup and wardrobe associated with prostitution, offers massages, and is looking for an experience that is closer to companionship than sex.

And thus she breaks every one of her rules, in succession: frustrated that their first encounter did nothing for him sexually speaking, she puts on Hannah’s clothes, sits when he sits, doesn’t offer him a disposable toothbrush, and eventually lets him into the other side of her apartment. She is left to contemplate the real reasons she does this: fear of commitment, of closeness, of all of those other types of psychological relationship issues she’s clearly going through. After a restless night, where she realizes she has no one to talk to and needs to find her own answers, her decision to have the Agent refuse to send Daniel to her again is an admission that she can’t be Hannah (or doesn’t want to be): she needs to be the sexual imagination stimulator Belle before she can be anything close to herself.

All of that, admittedly, is a bit predictable, but it’s the right way to start the series; pilot is simple in its execution, just letting this character exist without much distraction elsewhere. The result is that it hinges almost entirely on Billie Piper, who is forced to carry a large majority of the show’s weight. Her comic chops are strong here, handling material more serious but less grave than what she got on Doctor Who. Similarly, since this is certainly at the very least a dramedy, she feels right at home giving this character a side that we can relate to; yes, she’s a prostitute, but the plot’s central duality is something that goes far beyond the sex trade.

It helps that Piper is attractive to the point of distraction while remaining down to earth in important ways. The sequence of her and Ben pretending to view a home in London allows her to be playful, but there’s always a look in her eyes that shows that she wants at least part of the life the home offers. I never really bought into her narration because we’re not supposed to; it’s supposed to feel like a well-measured reasoning that has a lot of cracks, and Piper allows those to unfold in a realistic fashion befitting her character. And considering that she spends half the episode in her underwear, that I took her character seriously at the end is a sign of her strong work.

The show certainly has nothing on HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me when it comes to the depictions of sex, here mostly played for either comedy or as part of a plot. Still, direction served to make the most of the brief scenes, in particular Daniel’s libido kicking back into gear; I won’t pretend to be an expert on how sex scenes should be filmed, but it felt like it was hitting the right notes in terms of where that storyline was heading. It never felt like a distraction, though, like it was just random people fornicating for our viewing pleasure, which is when a show starts to fall off the rails.

And at the end of the day, the pilot does what it needs to do: establishes a character, provides conflict for that character, and sets the stage for further conflicts to come. Whether it’s her private life becoming public or her meeting further clients, show has plenty of potential.

Cultural Observations

  • Great to see Showtime making the rare decision to air an imported comedy outright as opposed to adapting it – in this instance, I don’t know if there’s an American setting that could match the London one, and you’d hate to waste Piper’s performance.
  • I’m curious to see whether we’ll see Daniel as a recurring character, or whether this was a simple test of morality for Hannah and little more. There’s a long-standing history of pilots that introduce characters only for setup purposes (Weeds, coincidentally, being one of them with Justin Chatwin’s young pot dealing son of Kevin Nealon’s character), so this is likely in the same vein.


Filed under Secret Diary of a Call Girl

2 responses to “Series Premiere: Secret Diary of a Call Girl – “Pilot”

  1. Pingback: Blogs » Blog Archive » Series Premiere: Secret Diary of a Call Girl - “Pilot”

  2. At tgis moment I amm going to do my breakfast, when having my breakfast coming again to read further

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