I no longer have to feel all guilty and faddy duddy about posting about period dramas now that shows like Downton Abbey have left a veritable cultural sweep of success around the world. Did I mention that during NYFW in September, the question that I got asked about the most was how does season two of Downton end? Me, the bumbling Brit is of course duty-bound to love period dramas. Dutifully, I conform to all cliches.
That said, Downton Abbey shouldn't be the successful exception in its genre. Alright, it's got the dramatic twists ("Oh my god, I can WALK again!"). It's got the upstairs, downstairs posh vs. poor element. And yes, sumptuous cinematography and costumes are a given. That said for a series that is a touch closer to the subject of fashion and retail, I give you The Paradise, which has just finished airing its first season on BBC 2 on the unusual Tuesday night slot. What gives credence to the series is its loose basis on the Émile Zola novel Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies' Delight), which I once mused about. Instead of Paris though, the series is set in a city in Northern England.
The premise is pretty much the same though. The Paradise is a bustling department store, the first of its kind in the city and it's crushing the small businesses around it. A new shopgirl Denise Lovett (played by Joanna Vanderham) comes in and inspires the ambitious owner John Moray (Emun Elliott) with her innovative ideas. This is the kind of fluffy easy-on-the-brain period drama that most people can digest even if it isn't the loftiest acting or scripting.
Moreover, a whooping £8 million has been spent on the production and in aesthetics, it shows. The sets are lavish and the costumes are quite memorable, more so than Downton in my opnion. Screencapping madness takes over. The store itself is a work of powder puff eye candy - pastel boxes, ribbons, taffeta, silks etc. Then you have the sumptuous costuming, which is largely centred on the character Miss Katherine Glendenning (Elaine Cassidy), the rich heiress who is out to marry Moray. She isn't the central heroine nor is she a likeable character but she does have a costume designer who has pretty much gone all out on her wardrobe. Her mostly cream or pale dresses are always adorned with eye-catching trimmings. Her hats sit just so. She fluffs and huffs about with a spoilt demeanour. She's all packaging and presentation - a beautiful husk of a woman to consume.
For substance though, it's the central plot, which points to parallels between the rise of competitive open-market capitalism in late Victorian England and today, when small independent shops fight against large corporate chains. The birth of this seduction process of walking into a department store tells us much about how consumerism sways us today.
Reading Zola's novel would be a good accompaniment to watching The Paradise. Take this passage for instance…
"First of all, a spring of light satins and soft silks: royal satins, renaissance satins, with pearly shades of spring water; and featherweight silks, crystal clear, Nile green, sky blue, blush pink, Danube blue. Then came the heavier fabrics, the duchess silks, the wonderful satins, with warm colours, tumbling in swollen waves. And down below the heaviest stuffs reposed as though in a basin: the thick weaves, the damasks, the brocades and the silks decorated with pearls or gold and silver threads, in the midst of a deep velvet bed - ever sort of velvet, black, white and coloured, embossed on silk or satin, its shimmering patches forming a motionless lake in which reflections of landscapes and skies seem to dance. Women, pale with longing, leaned over as though to see their own reflections in it. All, confronted by this bursting cataract, stopped in their tracks, seized by a vague fear that they might be swept up in the torrent of such luxury and by an irresistible desire to leap and to lose themselves in it."
Yup, a whole paragraph just on the description of the silk department.
I hear ITV is also producing a drama based on the life of Harry Selfridge (the founder of Selfridges) and The Paradise has been recommissioned for a second series. Bring on the cosy nights in when watching period dramas could almost be classified as *ahem* "research" for the blog.