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.
Joanna Vanderham as Denise in