LOVE a duck, Harlots (BBC2, Wednesday, above) was a rum do. Set among prostitutes in Georgian London, it was not sure if it was Arthur or Martha, a comedy or a drama, but it certainly grabbed the attention with both hands.

Much of that was due to a first-rate female cast, led by Samantha Morton and Lesley Manville as rival madams Margaret Wells and Lydia Quigley. Lydia’s brothel was uptown, which was where Margaret wanted to be, and if she had to sell her youngest’s virginity to get there, then so be it. After all, she had done the same for her eldest when she was 12. What a lark, eh? Well, no.

Harlots was like that: one minute it was bowling along merrily, all rutting male bottoms and big- bosomed cackling women, the next it had morphed into a reality-checking horror show about a working woman’s lot in the 18th century.

This curious blend of tone perhaps accounts for Harlots’ long and winding road to prime time mainstream viewing. It first aired three years ago on the old ITV Encore channel, was picked up in America then dropped, and now it has arrived on BBC2.

If nothing else, Harlots was packed with sound business advice, such as how to ask for a pay rise. This lesson arrived via Mary Cooper, who used to work for Lydia but was thrown out on the street on account of her having the pox (again, nothing to laugh about). Margaret wanted to use her to embarrass Lydia, but Mary was not going cheap. “I want more gin,” she bellowed. “I want laudanum. I want £5. And I want a roast chicken.” Detailed, specific, ambitious: file the style away for future use.

I was also in awe of Margaret’s team talks, as when she rallied her troops for the arrival of several coach loads of lusty men. “When we get in there, everyone witty,” she commanded. “And reclining.” Terribly important, reclining.

A giggle on the whole, as long as you don’t mind being violently pulled up every now and then by the sight of a dying, pustule-splattered woman.

Little Birds (Sky Atlantic, Tuesday) was another drama determined to make a virtue out of naughtiness. Based on a collection of short stories by Anais Nin, it began in New York in 1955 with wealthy young bride-to-be Lucy (Juno Temple) preparing for a new life with her posh but impoverished English beau Hugo (Hugh Skinner). The two met in Tangier and married.

Alas for Lucy, the last thing Hugo wanted to do on their wedding night was canoodle. He fancied dancing the night away in one of Tangier’s fabulously decadent nightclubs, as did everyone else it seemed.

Little Birds was packed with sex, intrigue, and politics, with gorgeous period detail as the cherry on top. There were “characters” aplenty, including Lili von X (Nina Sosanya), a chanteuse, actress, and all round saucepot. Somehow, though, it did not take flight. As with Lili’s name, there was a sense of everyone and everything trying too hard. This was a drama that clearly wanted to be David Lynch when it grew up, but it came across as a bunch of kids hitting the dressing up box.

There was louche behaviour on display at the start of Cuba: Castro vs the World (BBC2, Tuesday) but it did not last long. The playground of rich Americans and the Mafia was about to get the shock of its life courtesy of the “bearded men of the mountains” who had seized power from Batista.

As the title suggested, much of this slick two-part documentary focussed on one particular bearded man, but another, Che Guevara, had his moment in the spotlight too. Mostly it was all about Fidel and how he plotted and fought to make “little Cuba”, as one former Soviet apparatchik called it, a big player on the world stage.

Castro vs the World came from the team behind The Death of Yugoslavia and Europe: Ten Years of Turmoil. As before, they had dug deep on the research and come up with talking heads who had something fresh and illuminating to say. Stuffed with anecdotes and observations that brought the period and personalities alive, this may not be the last word on Cuba – there was not enough about the darker side of Castro’s regime for a start – but it had a pretty good claim.

I missed the pilot of Semi-Detached (BBC2, Thursday), which meant I was but lamb to the mirthless slaughter. You gotta have a gimmick, as the gals in Gypsy sang, and in this Lee Mack-led sitcom the contrivance is that it is shot in real time, so the half hour on screen was the half hour as filmed.

That was about as interesting as it got as Stuart (Mack) continued to grapple with his mid-life crisis. He had a new young partner, a new baby, but guess what, his ex-wife lived across the road and his other neighbours were just as wacky. How wacky? They had a hot tub with lobster in it. I don’t recall why, but I do remember not once cracking a smile.