I love a good BBC costume drama, so earlier this year, I was excited to discover one that I hadn’t heard of: The Paradise, a Victorian-era series that ran for two seasons before unfortunately being cancelled in February 2014.
I’m always a bit wary of starting a series that is on the brink of cancellation or has been cancelled, because I don’t like to be left hanging if the series’ ending is abrupt. However, I couldn’t pass this one up when it appeared in my Netflix recommendations, because I fell in love with the bright, pastel aesthetics of the poster. I’m a sucker for pretty things.
Based on the novel Au Bonheur des Dames by Emile Zola, BBC transports the story from France to northeastern England in 1875. Widower John Moray (Emun Elliot) owns the country’s first department store, The Paradise. Ready-made clothing, perfumes and other goods are sold, much to the delight of the spend-happy public. Moray is helped along by his assistant, Dudley (Matthew McNulty), and the very rich Katherine Glendenning (Elaine Cassidy), who convinces her father to invest in the store.
Denise Lovett (Joanna Vanderham), the niece of a struggling dressmaker (Peter Wight), takes a job at The Paradise when she arrives in town only to find that her uncle has no work for her. She’ll be working as a salesgirl of women’s fashions, under the watchful eye of Miss Audrey (Sarah Lancashire).
Denise is a great success in the store, full of innovative ideas to bring in customers, which makes her a favorite of Moray but doesn’t win over her coworkers.
The shopgirls of The Paradise live together on the premises, under strict rules and a curfew. Denise rooms with Clara (Sonya Cassidy), who is in love with Moray and has a troubled past, and Pauline (Ruby Bentall), a spunky girl who becomes fast friends with Denise from the first day.
As I suspected from looking at the poster, this series is visually perfect. The costumes are amazing, the sets are amazing. The period is captured very well and with great beauty and whimsy. Can I live in The Paradise? Now that the series is cancelled, can I just buy the store and move in? Pleeeease?
The visuals aren’t the only thing to love about The Paradise. I also enjoyed the range of well-developed female characters. The men, with the exception of Moray (who plays a large part in the story due to the fact that he owns the store, controls everything and has eyes for Denise), play second fiddle to Denise and her co-workers.
There are no true “villains” here. All of the characters have positive and negative traits. Some are more likeable than others, but none are demonized or treated as simple foes.
Miss Audrey, for instance – she’s jealous of Denise and tries to suppress Denise’s ideas, but she’s also incredibly dedicated to the store, and it’s understandable that she would go to great lengths to protect the career that she has spent her whole life building.
Moray, as well, is generally a good boss. He cares about his staff and encourages them to reach the heights of their potential. But he’s also quite scheming, especially when it comes to finding ways to grow the business and beat the competition.
The character of Denise is particularly interesting, which makes sense what with her being the central character of the series. She’s talented, creative, hard-working but doesn’t fall fully into the “career girl” stereotype. She’s young and wants a lot out of both of her career and her personal life. When asked by her co-worker whether she’s got a crush on Moray, she responds with “I don’t want to marry him, I want to be him” (episode 1). Two episodes later, after her genius as a saleswoman has begun to be recognized by her superiors, she says, “These days, I think I can do anything I set my mind to.”
I also love the character of Mr. Jonas. He’s a small side character, an older man always lurking around the store and observing, writing in a notebook. He adds a touch of mystery to the cast of characters and gets embroiled in a pretty intense conflict by the end of the season.
If you like costume dramas or character-driven television series, I highly recommend checking out The Paradise. It’s a great show that captivated me from the first episode. Season 1 is available streaming on Netflix, though you’ll have to find another way to watch the second.