The Paradise, airing on the BBC is loosely based on Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies Delight or The Ladies Paradise), Zola’s 11th book of his Rougon-Macquart series.
Transferring the setting from Paris to London, this production focuses on characters, plot lines, themes and class distinctions that bear a passing resemblance to the Zola work. What is particularly wonderful about this series, which has completed its second year, is the attention paid to the luxurious set designs and costume details referencing the more lavish upper class lifestyles in the historical period. It was a time when the lower middle, middle and merchant classes were employing their drive, ambition and artistry to rise up and mingle with landed gentry. The series intimates that these classes, using their new found prominence and prosperity as a springboard, with a bit of ingenuity, might attain access and even marry into a class that had in the past been closed to them. Such is one element that resonates for some of the characters in the series, especially the ambitious protagonists John Moray (Emun Elliot) and Denise Lovett (Joanna Vanderham).
During the first season of The Paradise, there is no “in your face” bang and smash expose of the egregious poverty, horrid living environs and labor conditions of the lower classes in Dickensian Victorian London. It exists, but we never see it because that other culture remains far away from the store, The Paradise, where much of the action takes place.
The huge store which covers an entire block is its own self functioning closed system. It is like a manor house, which shelters, feeds and clothes its many employees. The store interiors are amazing, absolutely “wicked” in their allure, charm and perfection. There is a determined absence of anything dingy and sordid. The serving and middle class employees’ living quarters above the store are modest and minimalist, which is appropriate to their station and role. All is clean and lovely; the exteriors, interiors, shine a heavenly gorgeous aspect in keeping with the store’s presentments and ambiance. As a result, the series’ overarching atmosphere and central tone concentrates on the other worldly purity, etiquette and lifestyles that the wealthy upper classes floated airily in and were privileged to enjoy; there is no unsavory note about at whose expense and harm.
Thanks to the vision of Producer Simon Lewis, Director Marc Jobst, Production Designer, Melanie Allen and writer Bill Gallagher, and their team of gifted craftspeople, artists and experts, the sumptuous settings are historically believable and the effect is evocative, profound, even breathtaking. The upper class settings (Glendenning manor house, The Paradise store) and middle class settings (Edmund Lovett’s draper shop and living quarters, The Paradise employees’ living quarters) are background “characters” in the series. The absence of extreme want and slum shanties becomes an imperative. Without this store that is “a paradise” the employees would have no work and no adequate place to live; they would struggle and be in penury. “The Paradise” indeed offers a life, a haven a shield against the darkness, cold and hurt of that “other” London. If its scintillating ethos is created to seduce and exploit? Somehow, turn about is fair play. We enjoy seeing the wealthy sucked into buying their overpriced purchases with the loveliest of witty persuasions.
Like Zola’s original novel, The Paradise focuses on the hierarchical network (from cook to shop girls and boys) of the store and its external influences. We note its social milieu and its connection to the larger culture of upper class London through Moray’s relationships, especially with banker Lord Glendenning (Patrick Malahide) and the Lord’s daughter, Katherine (Elaine Cassidy). Katherine is an influential diva socialite who loves Moray and wishes he would put away thoughts of his dead wife and marry her. For his part Moray is attracted to Katherine’s social standing, power, money and influence and they have an attachment, but foremost in his passions is The Paradise‘s success. That is his life’s work.
A brilliant innovator and former draper (clothing maker), Moray combined a passel of shops (shoes, hats, umbrellas, ladies wear, menswear), under one roof to create the modern day department store that is The Paradise. His creation is an infinitely unparalleled work of art, more like a palace with chandeliers, exquisite furniture, gorgeous wallpapers, silk draperies, incredibly sumptuous clothing, sundries, goods, linens, etc., and exotic imported products (birds, perfumes). The interior and exterior design rivals the finest mansions, like a miniature throwback to Versailles. Moray understands that women are on the cusp of a new revolution: individuality, freedom of choice. The Paradise, extending an entire block after its expansion which swallowed up every shop in its path, offers ladies a huge and enticing selection with which they can redefine themselves and enhance their lifestyles. In conference with his partner and long time friend Dudley (Matthew McNutly), Moray identifies his store’s intent and purpose when he says, “We have a new church.”
From top to bottom, inside to outside, from its concepts to its motivations and inspirations to titillate its patrons’ imaginations, Moray has created an exceptional shopping marathon for the wealthy who will come to his store for the latest in fashion and excess. Where servants used to shop for their masters and mistresses, Moray has created this palace to acculturate the women to visit, seducing them to a new experience. Here they can comfortably interact in a beautiful environment to do their own shopping, They may indulge their innovative spirit by repudiating their personal dressmakers for Moray’s fine imported fabrics using his style-trending clothing designers. To draw them Moray has elected to fashion his “ladies wear department” like a salon with plush furniture, thick carpeting with color coordinating hues. It is intimate, softly glowing with candlelight; there are crystal candelabra perched everywhere to create an atmosphere of romance and love. Initial episodes are devoted to how Moray tempts Katherine Glendenning and her influential friends. They come because his pleasure palace promises them a relaxing retreat, is convenient, they learn about his unique, exquisite items, and they enjoy subtly flirting with this handsome, sensitive and intriguing widower who is forever mourning his beautiful, dead wife.
The characterization of Moray (Emun Elliot in a superlatively sensual and seductive turn) is cleverly adapted by writer Bill Gallagher as the tempter ruling The Paradise. He is an uber sophisticated, suave cosmopolitan. Smooth, hip, a continental in his manner and dress; he is the antithesis of the black suited, stiff collared, mutton-chop bearded Victorian gentleman. He is an exceptional promoter and with the help of talented employee, the lovely Denise, he pumps up his marketing and encourages imaginative designs and ideas for displays and presentations of his products. Moray maintains the utmost loyalty from his employees with the help of his spy, Jonas (a wonderful performance by David Hayman) who is his confident and staff administrator. Jonas is a foreboding, scary presence who keeps the employee sheep in line like an ominous dog who is ready to bite. The plot lines swirl around relationships: Moray and Katherine and Lord Glendenning; Moray relying on the mysteries Jonas keeps in his black book; Moray and his wife (and her death); Moray and shop girl Clara (Sonya Cassidy) with whom he had a tryst; Moray and Dudley; Moray and his employees and Moray and his champion shop girl Denise. There are numerous spin off sub plots, including the resentment the shops girls and Miss Audrey have for Denise who is so entrepreneurial, she makes the others look dim. One sub plot that neatly develops into the overarching story concerns Clara’s fear that Denise will take over in Moray’s affections even surpassing Katherine Glendenning with whom he eventually is betrothed (a main plot).
Denise, Moray’s “little champion” (an exceptional Joannap Vanderham), is a creative, strong, independent thinker and guileless saleswoman who teaches even her superior Miss Audrey (Sarah Lancashire) how to hook the high maintenance fish. Clara loves Moray and her dislike of Denise is palpable, but Denise tells Clara, she doesn’t want Moray; she wants to be him. Like Moray, Denise is impassioned by the store and the untold creative opportunities it presents. However, as the series progresses and Moray becomes dependent upon Denise’s ideas, their similar goals, spirits, and their collaborations run to mutual respect and a potential for deeper feelings. The pressure of forbidden attraction menaces. Katherine and Lord Glendenning, Dudley, Edmund Lovett (Denise’s uncle and Moray’s competitor) Clara and others would be opposed to any relationship these two might develop. The stakes rise: Moray needs to borrow money from his banker, Lord Glendenning and his betrothal becomes finalized. Denise finds herself telling Moray she loves him, much to her chagrin, and Moray appears to be revisiting his tryst with Clara, yearning for intimacy to distract him from the pain of his wife’s death which he cannot reconcile.
The Paradise is a truly engaging and gorgeously effected period drama that compels our eyes and ears to the rich story lines. It captivates our senses, moral indignation, curiosity and intellectual interest to come back for repeated episodes because of the superb writing and clever tensions between and among the classes and the characters.
It would be a disservice to toss the series away as a “soap-opera” ignoring the sociology of this important historical period. The roots of mercantilism, marketing and PR were spawned during this time when the middle class was burgeoning, entrepreneurs were budding and society, especially women was in flux and shifting paradigms. Merchants, promoters and advertisers were molding women increasingly as the shoppers of tomorrow. It was a time not unlike ours with similar issues and conflicts. Local shop keepers tried to maintain a cultural unity and pleasant environment despite department stores swallowing up more and more of them.
Large enterprises undercut markets to eliminate competition. There were class and economic gaps and extreme poverty with a chronic unemployed. There were also issues of employers expecting complete loyalty from employees; women seeking to be entrepreneurial like men; social climbing and marriage as an economic arrangement; the forbidden aspect of falling in love at one’s employment especially falling in love with one’s boss; the idea of marrying for love or for convenience. Each of these issues spur on the themes and are presented with a dynamism that keeps one engrossed. The set design and costume design reflect the past but the brilliant artistry is liberated and selective enough to be influenced by the modern day. This is not dead history; the actors, production staff and director have breathed life into the characters, environs and lifestyles so they become very real and interesting.
Finally, the DVD of The Paradise has half an hour of additional footage, which delves into how the series was made, the choices for the sets and the actual recreation of this gobsmacking building: its fabulous interiors. They discuss the recreation of an entire street in County Durham, in keeping with that approximate time period. The crew constructed both sides of the street. On the side opposite The Paradise are the shops attempting to compete with Moray’s incredible vision. Naturally, the reconstruction took much longer than anticipated. The actors, director, producer and production designer discuss how they contributed to this work and what it feels like to see the final results and work in the costumes and setting. They also provide insights into the historical time period which is invaluable and makes history step out of the past connecting us to the present.