‘Oh Katherine’ it’s a kind of heaven’*
If you are one to indulge from time to time in a little retail therapy, then you will probably enjoy another new television drama series from England the visually sumptuous BBC 1’s The Paradise. It is based on the novel Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies Paradise) by French writer Émile Zola (1840 – 1902), who was a firm believer in the idea of human progress. Adapted by Bill Gallagher (Lark Rise to Candleford) it is set in the fashionable new world of The Paradise a department store c1870 in a fictional town in the north of England. If it had been London the ladies from Downton Abbey would have been sure to shop there.
The whole idea of gathering a variety of goods together in one place for the convenience of the shopper was an exciting innovation in the mid-nineteenth century, which was putting a lot of small businesses out of business all over England and Europe. The burgeoning middle classes now had money to spend and visionary businessmen wanted to ‘cash in’ on what was a brand new opportunity. Our English correspondent reports the first episode provided a pastiche of delightful experiences in a bid to whet appetites and establish a solid credible storyline so that we will keep tuning in to see at what pace The Paradise and all its protagonists progress. If you want to come fresh to it and don’t want us to spoil it for you please do not read on.
If we are to gauge our initial reaction on just how shopping inside The Paradise looks, then we would all want to rush in now. The store set created for the series is a feast of visual delights, and one that is sure to garner many admirers, immediate followers and provide many subjects for fashionable blogs. There has been a great deal of time and effort put into recreating the era and the goods, as well as the superb boxes and wrapping materials. They have been produced from the archives of companies still in business that date back to that time. As the filming takes place in County Durham in the north east of England, not London, some of the items were sourced from local craftsman who no doubt enjoyed the experience and the work.
The Paradise is all about enjoying the in house experience where shoppers have beautiful things to look at and attentive well-informed staff provide personalized service to the clients. The beauty of the retail store interior provides a striking contrast for the exterior scenes of the street outside, where run-down small shops are struggling to survive. This is the period when the rapid pace and expansion of the industrial revolution was reaching a heartbreaking climax for many who were bewildered at the rapid onset of change. Only those who were able to adapt would survive.
One of the parallels we can draw in our own time is that department stores are now threatened by the rapid advance of shopping online technology. It has taken over the ‘service’ that used to be provided by the real shops, which in the past few decades have reduced staff to increase profits, forgetting that shopping was for a long time all about the ‘experience’ where customers felt and believed they were both comforted and cosseted and more than often spoken to by name.
It was in England that a drapers and fashion shop Bainbridge’s, which first opened in 1838 in the centre of Newcastle upon Tyne became in 1849 the first department store in the world, with 23 separate departments, each recording their takings weekly.
Zola in his novel based his ideas for the store this production has called The Paradise on the fabled Le Bon Marché at Paris. It also opened in 1838 as a small shop and went on to become a fixed-price department store from 1850. It pioneered mail order, a system of staff being paid commissions, an in-house staff commissary and brilliant new methods of receiving and retailing goods.
Our country girl heroine of the piece Denise aka Joanna Vanderham has arrived in London to hopefully work for her Uncle Edmond, who is an old fashioned draper and dressmaker.
His small shop is directly opposite The Paradise and Denise has encountered its magnificence as she arrives in a fictional English northern city from Peebles, a small town in the borders region of Scotland.
So across the road she goes to see if she can secure a position for herself having watched another girl given her marching orders as she passed by.
Life is all about seizing the moment and the opportunities that present along its journey and Denise is very modern in her thinking. Her Uncle though will have a hard time accepting her new position as he cannot deal with change at all.
A very sensual Moray (Octave Mouret in the novel) is played in a completely mesmerizing manner by Emun Elliott. He is the main owner of The Paradise. The character of Moray featured in another of Zola’s novels ‘Pot-Bouille’, marrying Caroline Hédouin, the owner of a small silk shop at the end. In this he is now a widower and has on his journey learned the retail trade and become wiser in the ways of the world. Following the death of the woman he loved he is now wanting to completely focus on achieving both material and self-fulfilling success.
Moray is entirely intoxicating, like a fine mature and well rounded wine he is a man for, and of his time. He quite literally thrives on thrilling the rich ladies of the upper class circle he now moves in with his seductively told stories and great brown eyes. He is wooing them all so that they will forget the fact that when they come to shop at The Paradise and find themselves perhaps standing next to a ‘butcher’s or ‘grocer’s daughter’ they will not mind too much. The class system as always rears its ugly head in this time.
Moray is a dashing bon vivant. ‘If there is a more attractive man within a hundred miles I will kiss my husband’, remarks one ‘lady’ upon encountering him.
Even after the first episode there’s sure to be many women who will feel the same way and by three and four there will be many more; its good to understand that upper class marriages at the time were often arranged for monetary gain and family convenience, not love.
In the first episode Moray is wanting to obtain a loan for expansion from the father of Katherine, a woman he has befriended. Her father Lord Glendenning is head of a financial institution he is endeavouring to have invest in his enterprise. She wants everyone to believe that she is walking out with him he is so charismatic. Although he says a great deal he actually promises her very little and being presumptive she asks her father to give her mother’s engagement ring so that she can propose marriage to him, which he is not ready for.
He observes to her father Lord Glendenning that he deals in ‘appetite’… that of the feminine weakness for pretty things, for fripperies, perfumes and petticoats and their needs is not an issue, but exploiting those feelings for the advantage of his business is his aim.
Meanwhile Denise is having a great deal of trouble settling in and the whole store is run like ‘Upstairs and Downstairs’.
The staff of The Paradise all enter by a back door just like in a large country house. They are housed in simple quarters provided nearby much like a ‘servants quarters’, where girls and boys are segregated and live under a strict lights out regime. Much like a military establishment, the rules are formidable and destined to be broken.
For Denise it’s a frustration, because she wants to get ahead in this man’s world. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly or some of the gaggle of girls she is forced to work and live with.
By the end of the first episode we can already see that she will both engage and rival her employer with her font of knowledge, clever ideas and love of challenge.
Again the writers can have a field day with her character and where they can take this story.
Denise has gained a place working in the Ladies wear department where Miss Audrey aka Raquel Watts reigns supreme. She is also a woman adapting for her times, brilliantly rising above her station to converse with society women on their level to make them feel at ease.
She is lorded over by her boss and manipulated by the other girls, who seek Miss Audrey’s favour by trying to discredit the newest and latest employee, who they sense will rival them all for the commissions they crave, because living on the ‘basic’ wage provided is nigh on impossible.
They will lose out in the end as Denise outwits them all and when it’s her turn to visit Moray’s office to find out if she’s fired or hired after a probationary period and after some of her colleagues have done their best to get rid of her, she returns triumphant and a permanent employee.
Moray has been observing her many little touches in the department and realizes that she has the potential to be an outstanding and loyal employee. He also overhears part of an extraordinary encounter she has with his girlfriend Katherine.
Denise delivers a wonderful eulogy on a tea gown. She is trying to convince Katherine to purchase the frock from Paris. However an awful prank is played on her by the scheming jealous assistant Clara, played convincingly by Sonya Cassidy. Denise is asked to ‘model’ the dress and finds it doesn’t fit her (Clara has switched sizes to make her appear a fool).
Katherine is all set to storm out when tactfully, unashamedly but with grace Denise steps out from behind the curtain, half undressed saying it does not matter how she looks in the dress, its how it will look on Miss Katherine that is important.
She then delivers a masterful speech explaining to her why she should buy it and tells her that within a month the dress will be the talk of the town. Moray observes that she is already a splendid saleswoman.
Dudley played by Matthew McNulty is Moray’s oldest friend and the very handsome manager of the Paradise. He has a heart of gold and is afraid that the risks Moray is taking to expand might be detrimental to his health.
Sam, Stephen Wight, meets Denise when she first arrives and is instantly smitten. He’s a likely lad, charming, funny and flirtatious wanting to be taken seriously so he can move up in a world in flux.
This well chosen ensemble cast, having settled into their characters, will no doubt contribute much to an interesting addition to the television drama scene as they help us to enjoy the art of shopping as a serious business.
It’s hard not to feel as awestruck as Denise did when she had her first encounter of The Paradise kind.. Moray’s pivotal role will be sure to draw all of us in, as it does his employees when in the final moments of this first episode he holds a great sale that is an outstanding success. He thanks them all for the trouble they have gone to in helping him to secure the future of his store and gives them all a well deserved ‘cash’ bonus.
Our correspondent cannot wait to grab another slice of heaven when visiting The (ladies) Paradise as it progresses and influences a great many lives.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012.
*Episode 1, The Paradise
Watch the Trailer of The Paradise
From a Novel by Émile Zola
Adapted by Bill Gallagher
Cast of Characters
Joanne Vanderham as Denise
Emun Elliott as Moray
Elaine Cassidy as Katherine
Matthew McNulty as Dudley
Sarah Lancashire as Miss Audrey
David Hayman as Jonas
Peter Wight as Edmund Lovett
Patrick Malahide as Lord Glendenning
Stephen Wight as Sam
Sonya Cassidy as Clara
Ruby Bentall as Pauline
Finn Burridge as Arthur