Featured image is by alexandra george at http://bookshelfstories.blogspot.gr/2013/01/the-paradise-bbc-series.html.
While it doesn’t quite leave you passed out on the floor gasping for more, The Paradise comes pretty close. Transferring Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames to northern England, it’s an Edwardian drama for our times. It’s about ordinary people that face the same issues as ordinary people today: smaller businesses struggling to compete with huge corporations, people moving out of the rural areas to look for work in the cities, how difficult it can be to find one’s place in a working environment and all the quirky stories, dramas and human struggles that can occur in any workplace.
When the resourceful and spirited Denise (Joanna Vanderham) moves to the city hoping to gain a place at her uncle’s draper’s shop, she finds him too poor to take her on: the great department store The Paradise has quite literally sucked the lifeblood from small local businesses and has plunged many people into poverty. Desperate for work, Denise is soon forced to break her uncle’s heart by accepting a job there as a salesgirl and is plunged into a dizzyingly beautiful world of prettiness that is contrasted by an almost labyrinthine subterranean ‘downstairs’ where she lives with her fellow employees, many adorable, like the sweet and rather bumbling Pauline (Ruby Bentall), many just plain creepy, like the cruel-faced Clara (Sonya Cassidy) who begins plotting Denise’s downfall from the moment they meet. Happily, Denise isn’t the kind of girl who allows herself to be trampled underfoot: she’s confident, bold, perhaps even reckless; she knows how to stand up for herself and possesses the kind of poise that cannot be taught, whether she’s arguing with a fellow staff member or selling a dress to a customer who considers herself to be above shopping at all. It’s wonderful to finally have a working-class heroine in a drama like this: she’s not somebody that young female viewers desire to be in their dreams, but somebody whom they can genuinely relate to; whose happiness they have shared and whose misery that have experienced themselves. Denise is the show’s first embodiment of the beauty that is possible in the condition of the ordinary person, and how it can be just as moving and complex as the condition of the upper classes that tend to dominate the standard Edwardian drama.
But The Paradise is no upstairs downstairs world of complete separation between social classes. Avoided by many high born ladies for fear of having to stand in line next to butcher’s daughters, it’s run by the inexplicably charismatic widower Mr. Moray (Emun Elliott), who, when he’s not obsessing about how to make more money, is obsessing about getting a loan from the father of a noble girl called Katherine Glendenning (Elaine Cassidy), who will do anything, however unscrupulous, to marry him. Their relationship is very interesting. While it seems to be founded on sexual tension more than love, there are times when Katherine seems more keen on Moray than he is on her (though this doesn’t stop him from deflowering her) and his behavior does sometimes suggest that he only wants her for her money. One is never entirely sure what one party wants of the other. Does Moray want to stay nouveau riche and prove himself to be equal to Katherine’s social standing, or does he just want to get his hands on her papa’s money and simply marry his way into it? Judging by the complicated, sometimes inscrutable, sometimes obviously emotional and dangerous way Moray behaves in this first episode, it’s probably going to take us the entire series to work out precisely what he wants, or if he even knows this himself. To make things even more interesting and harder (really?) for himself, Moray also experiences an alarmingly sudden identification with Denise as she first wanders in off the street that soon ripens into chemistry so fiery that I honestly thought their interview about halfway through the episode would end up with master and employee in flagrante on his office desk. Happily, there was no recourse to such soap opera clichés, though there’s no telling where things might end up in the future.
The Paradise is the kind of show that can appeal to both a wide audience and a small one. Its gorgeous cinematography and stunning costumes will no doubt bring many Downton Abbey obsessives to worship at the altar of period drama for the masses, and its simple, unassuming juxtaposition of the opulence of the rich, the misery of the poor and the trials of the merchant class will appeal to fans of North and South. Its plot is simple and easy to follow, but there is always a variety of interesting, murky undertones present, whether in the characters themselves, or in the relationships between them. I’ll definitely be watching the rest of it.