Last month, Her Ladyship published a cursory review of the first episode of BBC’s The Paradise and was left interested, rather than addicted. Having now had occasion to watch the entire series, she is delighted to announce that her attitude to the show, which transfers Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames to Northern England, is now the latter instead of the former.
Denise Lovett (Joanna Vanderham) is a native of the small, freezing cold village of Peebles, and has been promised a job at her uncle’s draper’s shop in the city. When she arrives, she finds a majestic white edifice called The Paradise opposite her uncle Edmund’s shop. This new department store stands in stark contrast to the shabbiness, misery and poverty of the rest of the street, a poverty that now leaves Edmund unable to fulfil his promise to his niece and that forces her to seek work at the very place that is responsible for destroying the livelihoods of every shopkeeper on the once-bustling street. But The Paradise proves to be a glorious destroyer. Red carpets, chandeliers, marble staircases, parquet floors, delicately-lit rooms and crystal cabinets filled with all manner of temptations; it is a paradise for Edwardian women that Denise soon grows to love when she is accepted there, making easy friends with delightful fellow employees Sam and Pauline (Stephen Wight and Ruby Bentall) and easy enemies with soon-to-be nemesis Clara (Sonya Cassidy). She displays early brilliance as a saleswoman in the ladieswear department despite a very rough start, and it is after an initial lightning-bolt moment of chemistry and an ingenious rescuing of a disastrous sales pitch to the imperious Katherine Glendenning (Elaine Cassidy) that she first catches the eye of John Moray (Emun Elliott), the shop’s charismatic owner and Katherine’s on-and-off fiancé. From the moment Denise is summoned to Moray’s office after her probation, however, it becomes evident that we’re dealing with two people that are intensely attracted to each other, not just on a physical level but on a spiritual one as well, making the connection between them powerful and, unfortunately for Katherine, absolutely unstoppable.
The Paradise shows customary BBC brilliance when it comes to casting, each actor masterful at portraying the psychological complexities of their own character and in making us understand their connection with other characters. Emun Elliott’s Moray is a widower who blames himself for his wife’s untimely death and is not much given to talking about it despite the portrait of her that hangs in his office: it is a part of him that he keeps for himself alone, a constant ache that he believes settling down with Katherine may assuage. He wants to be kind to himself and to allow himself to love, but cannot bring himself in that direction without an internal stab of pain. In his day-to-day existence, however, he allows his work to consume him; he is unfailingly polite and pleasant; charming the pants off his customers and his staff; and constantly on fire to expand the shop and to make the money to be able to do it. Elliott plays these two levels against each other with such stirring genius that the viewer can sometimes not believe that the sweepingly diplomatic businessman negotiating loans with Katherine’s father is the same Moray sitting behind his desk in his shirtsleeves, too emotionally exhausted and consumed by grief to be capable of bothering with pretence. He is equally good at making us understand how differently Moray feels in his relationships with Katherine and Denise. His dynamic with Katherine is fascinating: there is a great deal of sexual tension and feelings of possessiveness on both sides, and the two dance around each other with inevitable frequency, Moray often giving the impression of squirming to free himself when their intention to get married is mutual, and of being insanely jealous when it is not. His wife haunts him continually when it comes to Katherine, but with Denise, this guilty aspect of his existence evaporates, simply because she awakens something in him that is too profound to be guilty about, something too right to be wrong. Katherine gives him the possibility of being happy again once he marries her, settles down and somehow learns to forget about his wife, something that Katherine demands continually. Denise, whom he affectionately calls his ‘little champion,’ gives him that sense of fulfilment, and of there being goodness in the world, simply by existing. It’s a cliché, but she really does complete him. All this is conveyed to us by an excellent script, but also by the wealth of evocative facial expression and body language that characterise Elliott’s mesmerising performance.
Joanna Vanderham’s Denise is one of the most interesting Edwardian heroines to come out of BBC Drama in years; her innocent, country girl façade concealing an inexplicable magnetism when she begins to speak, a fine, creative head for business, a formidable sense of justice that doesn’t exclude the possibility of self-sacrifice, and, we learn, a firm belief that all people are equal that would scandalise many customers if they knew about it. Vanderham’s performance is so movingly sincere and heart-warming, and all the more so for being grounded in believable realism, but it is in later episodes, when Denise’s love for Moray causes her little but constant agony, that she truly excels, her feelings conveyed to us with raw emotion and stunning conviction that make us want to hug her and whack Moray on the head. As we mentioned in our previous review, it is a refreshing change to have a working class heroine in a usually upper-class-dominated genre, and she is a character that young working women today can genuinely relate to.
On that note, let’s not fail to observe that The Paradise is one of those rare period dramas with a social conscience and a distinct minority of upper-class characters who are not particularly likeable. The classist attitude of the times is frequently investigated, analysed and upbraided, and capitalism itself shown in a less-than-flattering light by the misery of the shopkeepers affected by The Paradise’s success. It’s a period drama at street level that shows us that the great trials and passions of human existence are not experienced any less intensely by the poor or by the working class.
A highly addictive, beautifully-written and beautifully-acted tale of workplace drama and of being human that makes its second season seem cruelly far off.
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