SHADOW BOX­ING

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

I’ M sorry but my re­cent con­ver­sion to Bri­tish TV’s cos­tume melo­drama genre may have been short-lived. I’ve just watched the first episode of The Par­adise, the ex­pen­sive new BBC se­ries set in the late 19th-cen­tury world of Bri­tain’s first de­part­ment store. And while the pro­mot­ers claimed it was as colour­ful and cap­ti­vat­ing as the silks on dis­play, af­ter en­dur­ing the first hour I prob­a­bly won’t be back for more.

To para­phrase the critic Ken­neth Ty­nan, its characters are sim­ply robed machines for the pro­duc­tion of densely scram­bled platitude, ex­ploit­ing the full ca­pac­ity of the English lan­guage for ‘‘ ex­quis­ite lap­idary empti­ness’’. (Ken Ty­nan had a way with words, un­like this se­ries.)

Few shows could bet­ter ex­em­plify the well­held no­tion that TV cos­tume dra­mas pret­tify the past and cre­ate a nos­tal­gic long­ing for an imag­i­nary time when all we did was wear beau­ti­ful clothes.

It’s a pity, be­cause I have been en­joy­ing some re­cent Bri­tish se­ries that were, to use the new jar­gon, ‘‘ higher soaps’’, in which se­rial pe­riod nar­ra­tives are haunt­ingly un­der­lined with dark un­der­cur­rents.

The fab­u­lous Cran­ford, adapted from Elizabeth Gaskell’s nov­els and from which Heidi Thomas crafted an exquisitely res­o­nant story about be­reave­ment and loss, hooked me a cou­ple of years ago. And like so many of you I de­lighted in the di­rect sto­ry­telling of Ju­lian Fel­lowes’s Downton Abbey, the pop­u­lar cos­tume se­ries ex­tolling the virtues of tra­di­tion, sta­bil­ity and fam­ily, the third sea­son of which re­turns soon on the Seven net­work.

The Par­adise dis­ap­points de­spite there be­ing so much prom­ise, so much juici­ness, in the idea. It is set at that moment when the world was thrust­ing for­ward into the fu­ture, and mod­ern mar­ket­ing and the shop­ping bazaar, with their po­ten­tial to re­lease the power of women, were chang­ing cities.

Set some­where in the north of Eng­land, The Par­adise was adapted — reimag­ined might be a bet­ter ex­pres­sion — by cre­ator and writer Bill Gal­lagher from French nov­el­ist Emile Zola’s 1883 novel, Au Bon­heur des Dames.

It is hard to be­lieve Mon­sieur Zola would recog­nise his work, a lus­trous lit­er­ary em­blem of moder­nity and op­ti­mism ac­cord­ing to for­mi­da­ble Amer­i­can lit­er­ary critic Elaine Showal­ter. She says Zola brought to­gether the bed­room and the tem­ple in his novel, the two forms the new de­part­ment store oc­cu­pied in his imag­i­na­tion. And in do­ing so, he stylishly drama­tised the woman of his dreams, pow­er­ful and pure, por­tray­ing her mar­riage to the forces of the new.

There is eroti­cism and en­ergy in the Zola — women take the shops by storm, ‘‘ car­ry­ing off the very dust from the wall’’ — but both are ab­sent in Gal­lagher’s adap­ta­tion. He also cre­ated Lark Rise to Can­dle­ford, again set at the end of the 19th cen­tury and ca­pa­bly adapted from the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­els by Flora Thompson. It lacked Cran­ford’s nar­ra­tive drive but there was a kind of episodic in­ten­sity, en­cour­ag­ing us to de­light in the pe­riod de­tail rather than an­tic­i­pate a fi­nal nov­el­is­tic des­ti­na­tion. It was all style and very lit­tle sub­stance, in­evitably the sorry fail­ing of this ex­pen­sive new se­ries.

When am­bi­tious coun­try lass Denise Lovett (Joanna Van­der­ham) comes to the city look­ing for work with her un­cle, Ed­mund Lovett (Peter Wight), a gen­tle, big-hearted, old-fash­ioned draper and dress­maker, he’s em­bar­rassed be­cause he can’t help. His small busi­ness has been dec­i­mated by the rise op­po­site his shop of an op­u­lent new de­part­ment store, the Par­adise, al­ready an em­blem of moder­nity and op­ti­mism. ‘‘ It’s eat­ing up the street,’’ he tells her, filled with rage at owner John Mo­ray’s (Emun El­liott) lack of con­sid­er­a­tion for the smaller shop­keep­ers.

Of course Denise, steely be­neath her porce­lain doll-like ap­pear­ance, heads across the road to the Par­adise, seek­ing work and a change in her for­tunes. She quickly falls in love with its stage-set-like sur­round­ings. And, al­most cer­tainly — to judge from the first episode — with the reck­less owner, ex­pert it seems not only at sell­ing lin­gerie but also at get­ting it off with the pretty young bod­ies on his staff. He’s also en­tan­gled with pam­pered and de­ter­mined Kather­ine Glen­den­ning (Elaine Cassidy), the daugh­ter of his po­ten­tial fi­nancier, the pow­er­ful Lord Glen­den­ning (Pa­trick Malahide).

There is a touch of both Up­stairs Down­stairs and Downton Abbey about the se­ries in the con­trast be­tween the clos­eted lives of the shop girls and the wealth and en­ti­tle­ment of the women in­creas­ingly at­tracted to the charms of the store in pur­suit of the lat­est fash­ions. As one of the girls says, ‘‘ It’s the place where shop­girls dream of be­ing cus­tomers.’’

There’s also a lot of eavesdropping go­ing on as the girls and their se­niors con­stantly over­hear the man­age­ment go about their Machi­avel­lian busi­ness.

It’s billed as the rags-to-riches story of a young girl who falls in love with the charms of the mod­ern world, but there is lit­tle of that world to be glimpsed out­side of the pro­gres­sive sales­man­ship of Mr Mo­ray.

He’s a po­ten­tially en­gross­ing char­ac­ter, a wid­ower whose his wife died in sus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances (‘‘Men­tion of his wife is for­bid­den in the Par­adise’’, Denise is quickly told) and who is pur­sued by fe­male ad­mir­ers. ‘‘ If there is a more at­trac­tive man within a hun­dred miles I will kiss my hus­band,’’ one says in a rare moment of hu­mour. He is self­made and thor­oughly mod­ern. ‘‘ I deal in ap­petite,’’ he says. ‘‘ There is an ap­petite in women we must ex­ploit.’’

El­liott, how­ever, doesn’t con­vince as a mar­ket­ing ge­nius like Zola’s Oc­tave Mouret, who ‘‘ in­tro­duced the bru­tal and the colos­sal into the sci­ence of win­dow dress­ing’’, or as a shrewd and ma­nip­u­la­tive ex­ploiter of women’s base in­stincts. His act­ing is im­ma­ture, a kind of shadow box­ing in search of a char­ac­ter. Ev­ery speech comes plod­dingly at us, a ball and chain of pro­fun­dity at­tached to its an­kles.

Van­der­ham’s Denise has some nice mo­ments and Ruby Ben­tall’s shop­girl Pauline is great fun, wil­fully steal­ing ev­ery scene in which she ap­pears with the full-pelt en­ergy of her act­ing. Sarah Lan­cashire is good too as the scold­ing Miss Au­drey (‘‘Quickly girl, we dally at our peril’’), adept at mas­querad­ing as some­one smarter and higher-bred than she nat­u­rally is.

Par­adise The

Joanna Van­der­ham as Denise in

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