The Paradise

11 January 2013

Photo: BBC.

I’m ashamed to say that it has taken so many months to watch The Paradise since I recorded the entire series when it was shown on BBC1 last Autumn. Ashamed and full of regret for it is absolutely marvellous!

Based on Émile Zola’s novel Au Bonheur Des Dames, The Paradise transports the action of the original book from glamorous Paris to an unnamed town in the north of England, which has the effect of making the luxurious opulence of the eponymous department store The Paradise stand out all the more starkly against its rather more down at heel surroundings.

Photo: BBC.

The series focusses upon the goings on at The Paradise under the auspices of its charismatic owner, John Moray who is apparently completely irresistible to any women who have the good fortune to enter his orbit. However the main character is the charming, intelligent Denise, whom we meet at the start of the series when she first arrives, a scruffy country girl from Peebles, to stay with her uncle whose rather less than sumptuous draper’s shop is across the road from The Paradise. Unfortunately, he’s not doing well enough to give her a job or support her so she ends up at The Paradise instead.

The series follows the luminously beautiful and orchidaceous Denise’s first months as a shop girl, gradually winning the trust, respect and even love of The Paradise’s other residents, who are, on the whole, a delightful bunch with their own stories, loyalties and idiosyncrasies. Besides Denise, I think my favourites are the errand boy, Arthur who has lived around The Paradise all his life; prickly head of Ladies Wear, Miss Audrey (Sarah Lancashire in very fine form – she really is an amazing and underrated actress and probably the best person that I share my birthday with) and the charming draper, Sam.

Photo: BBC.

Amongst the many dramas that revolve around the tight knit staff at The Paradise, I think the most compelling is the rivalry between Denise and the more experienced and cunning shop girl, Clara who really ought to be friends but are continually set against each other by Denise’s natural abilities and constant stream of ideas for the business and also Moray’s clear preference for her.

There’s external forces at work too though within Moray’s on/off romance with local heiress, the winsome Katherine Glendenning who starts the series as something of a sweet ingenue but ends it as something rather less charming as it becomes clear that she will stop at nothing to get her man and assert her dominance over his business.

Photo: BBC.

The whole series is an absolute delight and a feast for the eyes with a gorgeous sugared almond palette and a rich aesthetic that is reminiscent of the macaron, velvet, lace edged and diamond spangled design of Coppola’s Marie Antoinette amidst which the black dresses worn by the shop girls are all the more eyecatching and confirm for the viewer that they are the stars of the show, not the well heeled and monied ladies that they attend to, who rather fade into the gorgeously opulent background. There’s a darkness here too though but even that is beautifully lit and gorgeously textured so that overall it is a marked contrast to the rather gloomy and dour look that we’ve recently become accustomed to from Victorian set dramas.

However, beneath the sugar almond pastel hues and delicate tinkling crystal chandeliers, there are dark themes such as prostitution, illegitimacy, rape, murder, foundling children and overall the insecure position of women in Victorian society at play beneath The Paradise‘s loveliness although they are dealt with in the most sedate way possible and pretty much everything is neatly wrapped up to the viewer’s satisfaction. You’ll witness no swearing, sex or violence beneath The Paradise’s well mannered roof which makes for perfect if occasionally unsettling comfort viewing.

Photo: BBC.

This series has courted comparisons with the likes of Downton Abbey and Cranford, which I think is fair enough as all three have a very rigid sense of hierarchy within the plot, which gives it much of its depth and complexity. As in Downton Abbey, most of the characters in The Paradise live within the eponymous central building and we see them at work and leisure from Mr Moray in his office to the sinister Jonas skulking about with his note book to the shop girls in their elegantly simple black gowns gossiping over dinner or in their bedroom. Everyone within the building has their own clearly defined place in the pecking order and, as in Downton Abbey, it is when people, generally Denise, begin to stray over this that conflict arises.

Ultimately, I absolutely adore this series – it’s profoundly sad at times and yet also very heart warming (in this it is very like Cranford in its profusions of pathos) in its depiction of the small community based around The Paradise. I honestly didn’t want it to end and am thrilled that there’s to be a second series. You can keep Downton Abbey with its absurd and increasingly preposterous plot and endless advert breaks – I’ll have The Paradise instead.

Ps. I’ve definitely warmed to the BBC’s Ripper Street – the second episode was genuinely gripping and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series. Okay it’s not at all accurate and is slightly ridiculous but it’s enjoyable and has some great characters. I’ll do a proper post when the series ends.

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