The Paradise is an eight part BBC series based on the novel Au Bonheur des Dames by Emile Zola, about a daring entrepreneur, John Moray, pioneering in his management of a flourishing, sumptuous department store located in an unknown northern town- known as The Paradise.
The story begins when Denise, an impoverished but clever girl arrives in town. Slightly awkward and naive from a sheltered, rural upbringing, Denise hopes to stay with her uncle, a struggling dressmaker who has been unable to compete with the success of the Paradise across the street. Denise's uncle is unable to look after her, and, much to his chagrin, she is forced to seek work at The Paradise. She is placed in ladieswear and quickly her sharp eye and modern ideas get her noticed by Moray, and elicit both jealousy and respect in equal measure amongst the rest of the staff. The chemistry between Denise, played by Joanna Vanderham, and Moray (Emun Elliott) is natural and convincing, and they are clearly cut from the same cloth in terms of business acumen, if you'll pardon the pun. Then there is Moray's on-off girlfriend, Katherine Glendenning, a devious and controlling little coquette who wants Moray for her own, and whose father just so happens to have the financial power to make or break Moray's endeavor. Throw in a few flies in the ointment- Clara, a jealous but fragile colleague with an unhappy secret, Miss Audrey, a spinsterly superior desperate not to be usurped by Denise, and Mr Jonas, a Machiavellian henchman of Moray's and you have the makings of an excellent pot-boiler.
Pros: The main characters are all strong, with good performance from the five or so Lark Rise to Candleford stars, as well as Emun Elliott and Stephen Wight (who some may have seen in a very different series, Threesome- it was quite a shock to see them in this with different accents and behaving themselves!) Elaine Cassidy as Katherine Glendenning is deliciously sly and spoilt. Sonya Cassidy as Clara is captivating and nearly steals the show in many of the shop scenes, and Ruby Bentall generates a lot of the humour as the lovable and dependably calamitous Pauline, a role not too dissimilar to her role as Minnie in Lark Rise.
This is a beautiful, luxuriant series to watch- the corsets, feathers, silks, chandeliers etc are every bit as seductive to the viewer as they are to the female customers, and the modern concepts of visual merchandise, spending incentives and customer rewards are all targeted towards female customers in a way many modern shoppers would recognise, but presented in a world of opulent, sitting room-style shop decor the likes of which one can only dream of now, although I'm sure much has been borrowed from the traditional style of shops such as Liberty's. I also liked the way the French names in Zola's novel have been transposed in this production- luckily most of them have English variants.
Cons: The screenplay can be excellent, but then it lapses into twee, hammy and unintentional hilarity in the same way in which Downton Abbey is afflicted: 'dawdling is a sin, girl!' Also, even though the series is eight episodes long and the tensions simmer along, surprisingly, a crescendo of tension is barely built up to in the final episode before it ends all slightly abruptly and with fairly little explanation. One of the main pot-boilers, a mysterious disappearance, all but limps lamely away towards the last twenty minutes of episode eight. The story is just about concluded, but in a rushed and unpolished way, which was something of a disappointment for me. There were certain characters who you wanted to see what happened to. Perhaps if the BBC commissions a second series, this would not matter so much. I certainly hope they do- the ending opens up new possibilities for the plot and character development.