ITV2's new call girl drama had to be thrilling without glamorising prostitution.
ITV2's new call girl drama had to be thrilling without glamorising prostitution.

With its tales of threesomes, spanking and other sexual shenanigans, The Secret Diary of a Call Girlis not for the faint-hearted. Tiger Aspect Productions and Silver Apples Media's eight-part drama for ITV2 is based on an anonymous internet blog, Belle de Jour, purportedly written by a high-class London prostitute who goes by the pseudonym Belle.

The blog, which emerged in early 2003, documents Belle's sexual escapades and her thoughts on life and relationships. It was also turned into a bestselling book, The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl.

Although Channel 4 originally commissioned it, the project was taken on by ITV2 in January this year with a view to it becoming one of the channel's first original dramas.

For ITV2 controller Zai Bennett, picking up The Secret Diary of a Call Girlas his first unique drama commission for the channel was a bold move. But the casting of Billie Piper in the lead role helped seal the deal.

'It nailed the attitude and tone for ITV2,' says Bennett. 'We thought Billie was such a huge star. With that specific subject you can get it wrong so easily but the young talent [involved in the project were] energetic and brought a real vision to it.'

The series follows Belle as she balances her secret life as a call girl with the person she is when she is with friends and family. Each episode includes a colourful sexual encounter with a client while the series is underpinned with the underlying narrative of her will-they-won't-they relationship with her best friend, Nick.

Silver Apples Media first bought the rights to the book and approached Tiger Aspect to develop it into a drama. It in turn called on a new young writer, Lucy Prebble, who had, coincidentally, also approached Tiger Aspect herself after reading the blog, with the same intention of dramatising it.

'I read a lot of blogs and I'm a big fan of the democratisation of storytelling,' says Prebble. 'Belle is a fascinating, complex, flawed person and she wrote about what we're all fascinated with: anonymous sex. We're either condemning of that or voyeuristic. But behind that, she's a woman who is young, intelligent and has really good stories to tell.'

The drama was developed at Tiger Aspect by executive producer Greg Brenman and series producers Rebecca de Souza and Roanna Benn.

It was the blogger's character that appealed to Benn and that was a deciding factor in taking on the project. 'There was an opportunity to make an interesting, strong female character and to explore a lot of issues,' says Benn.

Research for the drama kicked off in 2005 and continued during the seven weeks of filming that started early this year. In that time Prebble, de Souza and Benn contacted the real 'Belle' (whose identity remains secret) as well as tens of real call girls while working on the script.

Some of the 'real' upmarket escorts visited Tiger Aspect's offices to partake in script meetings and offer suggestions, some of which were included in the final script. On one occasion a dominatrix was present on set during a sex scene to advise on whipping techniques.

The sex scenes themselves, according to director Yann Demange, were shot to reflect Belle's feelings at the time. Those involving clients were captured in an observational way using static cameras for a sense of distance. When she was with men she felt emotionally attached to, the shots were tighter and hand-held. And, rather than show full-on nudity, close-ups that focused on certain parts of Belle's body such as her mouth or thigh, were captured instead.

Director Demange oversaw the first four episodes. He says he wanted the edgy subject matter to be translated into the on-screen visuals. 'It was always going to be subversive,' he says.

This was achieved by giving a cinematic look to the series with Demange drawing inspiration from the light and shade of French cinema. The protagonist also makes frequent asides and breaks the 'fourth wall' to do pieces to camera. 'You feel closer to the character,' says producer Chrissy Skinns. 'It makes her look more accessible and vulnerable.'

There was also an emphasis put on the drama's London location. There are various shots of the London skyline and scenes set against recognisable backdrops such as the river Thames.

'It's important for me that London was a character, in the way US dramas do with [somewhere like] Manhattan,' says Demange. 'I wanted to show London as a sexy place to be. The locations helped to tell the story.'

The very essence of a kinky call girl was physically present in the filming techniques, right down to the 10-denier stocking placed on the back of the camera lens to make the image more glossy.

'Yann wanted to keep the camera moving as much as possible,' says director of photography Tat Radcliffe. 'The camera moves with her; she's the narrator, not just the character.'

This was achieved by using a circular track to keep the camera, a Panasonic Varicam, moving around Belle as she spoke to the 'audience'.

The team also had to face the dilemma of how to illustrate the stylish nature and wealth of a call girl without glamorising prostitution. Demange believes that this has been side-stepped as the drama sheds light on one level of the sex industry rather than prostitution as a whole.

'They were in a privileged position in the sex industry, so they were not exposed to the dangers of working girls in the streets,' he says. 'It's important to draw that distinction and to say that's not representative of the industry as a whole. It's like a layer cake and Belle is in the upper echelons.'

'It's also challenging people's views,' says Skinns. 'It's about a young woman doing this thing by choice but her double life creates problems for herÉ it's unapologetic.'

TX: the secret diary of a call girl

Broadcaster: ITV2
Producer: Tiger Aspect Productions with Silver Apples Media Ltd
Start: In September at 10pm
Length: 8 x 30 minutes
Commissioner: Zai Bennett
Executive producers: Greg Brenman, Avril Macrory, Michael Foster
Directors: Yann Demange, Susan Tulley
Series creator/writer: Lucy Prebble
DoP: Tat Radcliffe
Post-production: St Anne's Post
Key cast: Billie Piper, Cherie Lunghi, Toyah Wilcox, Iddo Goldberg