Contributed by Matt Donnelly
So far it looks as if 2012 has been the year of the period drama with the year’s two most watched dramatic series being Call the Midwife and last week’s Downton Abbey premiere it seems that as a country the UK loves to look to the past. After reliving the past TV bosses believe that our next big obsession is shopping with period dramas about department stores being the latest big thing as coming soon to ITV we will see Mr Selfridge but debuting this week we have BBC1’s The Paradise. Loosely based on Emile Zola’s The Lady’s Paradise the creation of the show has been put in the hands of Bill Gallagher best known for another popular costume drama in the much-loved Lark Rise to Candleford.
The Paradise is about a changing Britain where the average shopper wanted everything under one roof and there were some enterprising men who were smart enough to cash in on this phenomenon. Set in an unnamed Yorkshire city in 1875 we see the slightly arrogant charmer Moray (Emun Elliot) transform his father-in-law’s humble local shop into a thriving department store with a fairly large staff to deal with the demand. As Moray can see that the days of the small shop are dying other store owners are less than convinced namely haberdasher Edmund Lovett (Peter Wight) who feels that Moray has eaten up the high street and wants revenge. Edmund is upset that he can’t offer a job to his niece Denise (Joanna Vanderham) when she arrives from her small town life ready to make it in the city. Inevitably she seeks a job at The Paradise and despite not making an impression with rival shop girl Clara (Sonya Cassidy) or head of ladies’ fashion Miss Audrey (Sarah Lancashire) when Moray discovers who her uncle is he gives her a job mainly out of revenge more than anything else. Denise initially struggles to fit in she does find a friend in Pauline (Ruby Bentall) who she ends up sharing a room with in the cramped living quarters while she also learns more about how she should behave while in the store. From episode one alone we can tell that Denise has ambitions to rise above the post of lowly shop girl and I wouldn’t be surprised if by the final episode she becomes the boss of Miss Audrey.
Running alongside Denise’s story is that of Moray who is desperate to get more funding for his shop and looks to exploit his relationship with the kindly heiress Katherine (Elaine Cassidy) by asking her father to invest his endeavour. However Lord Glendenning (Patrick Malahide) isn’t convinced that a store selling perfume and pantyhose is a worthwhile investment so Moray decides to prove him wrong by launching an audacious sale. Using money he doesn’t have Moray asks all of the local suppliers to give him more stock than he would normally have however this angers money man Dudley (Matthew McNulty) who thinks Moray takes too many risks. Moray is also portrayed as someone who is lost following the mysterious death of his wife who was supposedly crushed during the renovations to the store. To get over her he sleeps with the majority of the female employees and any he gets caught with instantly get sacked and it seems that some also end up on the street. Going forward it will be the relationship between Moray and Denise that will be interesting as he seems to want to bed her but she just wants to have his success.
As with all modern costume drama The Paradise looks fantastic with the most attention being paid to the inner-workings of the department store as you truly believe that you are seeing the evolution of shopping before your very eyes. This is also contrasted nicely by the claustrophobic living quarters where Denise and her friends live this is a place of idle gossip and thin corridors in which illicit lovers could easily be caught. The costumes are also well-designed from the fancy frocks Katherine and her friends wear to the slightly horrid uniforms that the ladies’ fashion team have to put on this is definitely a drama that is aesthetically pleasing. The problem is that I didn’t really gel with either Moray or Denise the former coming off as a philandering egotist while the latter was a wide-eyed country girl who is inevitably going to fight her way to the top. Neither Emun Elliot nor Joanna Vanderham particularly tried to make us empathise with their characters either and they just came off like stereotypes. Thankfully the veteran members of the supporting cast did a better job with Sarah Lancashire’s schoolmistress like Head of Fashions, David Hayman’s creepy assistant and Peter Wight’s jealous small businessman being particular highlights.
At the end of the day maybe The Paradise just isn’t for me something I realised when watching a five minute scene in which Denise tried to convince Katherine that a pink tea dress was right for her wardrobe. While I enjoyed the performances from the more senior cast members I didn’t really feel a connection with either of our two central characters something I had no problems with in Lark Rise to Candleford. Though I’m not the biggest fan of costume drama I did enjoy both Call the Midwife and Downton Abbey as I found them to be gentle escapism however I never really relaxed into The Paradise as much as I did with those two programmes. Maybe it will grow as it goes on, there are eight episodes after all, but judging from this first instalment alone I don’t think The Paradise will be as big of a period drama hit as some of their previous success stories.