'The Paradise': Behind the department-store counter

Joanna Vanderham stars in "The Paradise" as an ambitious salesgirl in a Victorian-era department store. The program premieres with a double episode at 9 p.m. Sunday on PBS and runs on Sunday nights through Nov. 17.
Joanna Vanderham stars in "The Paradise" as an ambitious salesgirl in a Victorian-era department store. The program premieres with a double episode at 9 p.m. Sunday on PBS and runs on Sunday nights through Nov. 17. (JONATHAN FORD / BBC)
Posted: October 04, 2013

Their era is all but over, but the great department stores - Macy's in New York, La Samaritaine in Paris, Harrods in London - in their heyday commanded such awe as was once reserved for medieval cathedrals. The press lauded their owners as bombastic dreamers and men of vision.

That sense of grandeur is evoked in The Paradise, a compelling, addictive eight-episode series about the rise of an Edwardian department store in an unnamed city in northern England.

Created by Bill Gallagher ( Lark Rise to Candleford, the PBS Masterpiece Classic drama premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday with a double episode and airs Sundays through Nov. 17.

Based on French author Emile Zola's 1883 novel The Ladies' Paradise, and featuring a particularly strong ensemble cast, the series dramatizes the elaborate goings-on behind the scenes at a major department store - the infighting, the budding romances, the gossip. In one episode, a clerk (Stephen Wight) is accused of making advances to a customer; in another, a baby is abandoned in a dressing room.

But the real focus is on two bright souls from opposite sides of the power spectrum, store owner John Moray (Emun Elliott) and shopgirl Denise Lovett (Joanna Vanderham), the latest addition to the ladies-wear department.

Vanderham is captivating as Denise, a country girl who leaves her job at the village haberdashery to pursue her big-city dreams. She finds a shopgirl's life isn't very different from that of a servant. The female clerks sleep in cramped rooms, have to follow a strict code of behavior, and have little chance of advancement.

Denise doesn't exactly conform. Bursting with innovative ideas, she catches the eye of almighty Paradise boss Moray.

Moray built the Paradise with his blood, sweat, and tears - and his late wife's money.

He began his career as a shop assistant, married his boss' daughter, and expanded their little shop to one of the city's top attractions. He's a member of that ever-growing breed of men and women produced by the era - the bourgeoisie.

With more leisure time and more money in their pockets, they're easy pickings for enterprising capitalists. Especially their women, easily tempted as they are to try new fads.

Asked by one of his financiers why the world needs "more perfumes and petticoats," Moray says, "need is not the issue, sir. I deal in appetite. There is weakness in women which we must exploit to the advantage of business."

Yet though the shop exploits the weakness of some, it also proves a democratizing force - noblemen shop shoulder-to-shoulder with bank clerks and lawyers.

For Denise, it's the road to salvation, eager as she is to prove herself in a world dominated by highborn men.

Television

The Paradise

9 p.m. Sunday on WHYY-TV12


tirdad@phillynews.com

215-854-2736

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|