Though it is based on Émile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames, The Paradise seems more like one of those many adaptations of Jane Austen. That is to say, like these popular movies and TV series, it suffers at times from a reductive, pastel-tinted chick-lit treatment. Televised last year on the BBC and premiering 6 October on PBS, the series offers up themes familiar to Austenphiles and also to consumers of works by Helen Fielding or Sophie Kinsella, which is to say, sex and shopping. That these themes are here cast in period dress doesn’t make them any less contemporary or, for that matter, any less archetypal.
In The Paradise, the comely and clever shop girl Denise Lovett (Joanna Vanderham) arrives in Newcastle from an unfashionable country town in search of work. She finds a place at the glittering department store of the title, the first in 1870s’ Britain. The store is owned by Moray (Emun Eliott), a stock romantic hero lifted straight from a Mills & Boon novel: he’s handsome, faintly tragic, and hints at a background danger, via the mysterious death of his wife and his reliance on a sinister henchman cum corporate spy.
It comes as no surprise that Denise attracts Moray’s notice, or that she considers that notice. That said, given that we know she knows of the dire consequences for shop girls who take up “relations” with male staff, her acquiescence is hardly foregone. Yet, and despite the fact that the first episode doesn’t quite dispel the possibility that she’ll just pine after her object from a virtuous distance, we don’t guess this will be the case.
We do know, however, that her trajectory will not be entirely smooth. For one thing, Denise isn’t entirely dazzled by Moray’s charm. She’s more taken with his business acumen than his wearying, constant flirting. Denise goes so far as to tell a fellow shop girl that she doesn’t want to marry Moray; rather, she’d “like to be him.” The show thus leaves open some possibility for exploring the young woman’s ambition, realized most effectively in her prickly working relationships. If the daily competitions for commissions don’t quite match the savagery of the male-on-male contests in Glengarry Glenross or In The Company of Men, they remain vicious enough to give the otherwise fluffy plotting a little bite.
Female desire emerges as the dominant theme of The Paradise through Denise and also the woman set up as her romantic rival, wealthy heiress Katherine Glendenning (Elaine Cassidy). While Denise must work her way out of hardship in order to support her family, Katherine’s chief motivation is the pursuit of power. She wields social influence over both her father (Patrick Malahide) and the reluctant Moray, as each makes significant business decisions on the basis of her actions. Her brattish behavior and frequent pretense of feminine helplessness make her patently unlikeable; she’s not above using fainting or weeping to get her way. But there’s something appealing in her unapologetic selfishness, especially as it’s set in direct contrast to the dauntingly moral Denise. As Katherine challenges Moray at his own game and, her lack of Denise’s scruples makes me hope she isn’t prematurely eliminated as a mere plot contrivance currently standing in the way of Moray and Denise.
Despite its sometimes hackneyed central players, The Paradise compares favourably to the similarly themed Mr. Selfridge, another PBS “Masterpiece” series, featuring a toothsome, booming Jeremy Piven as a self-made man in London of 1909. Where that show makes its links among shopping, aspiration, and seduction explicit, The Paradise takes a gentler approach. Such approach is most obvious in the subplot involving an unhappy wife who masks her pain with easy credit and beautiful hats, as well as in the backdrop provided by the shabby small traders who find themselves unable to compete with the glamour of the Paradise.
This sort of class commentary surfaces again in the stories of the hardworking shop floor staff. Their resistance to increasingly oppressive conditions is represented by Sam (Stephen Wight), a draper and chirpy salt-of-the-earth Northerner (British television knows of few other kinds) who defends himself against an aristocratic customer in a case of wrongful dismissal. That commentary is then limited, however, as the conflict is too prettily resolved. The same cannot be said of the melodramatic tensions between women in The Paradise.