The BBC's latest costume drama has clearly brought people enjoyment and escapism. It's first four episodes drew an average audience of 5.9 million, and, buoyed by this success, another eight episodes have already been commissioned for 2013. Yet, as the current series draws to a close, I have very mixed feelings about The Paradise. Pleasurable as it is, it takes a lazy approach to a concept so full of potential.
The drama bears too little resemblance to The Ladies' Paradise to be called an adaptation of Emile Zola's nineteenth century novel, as it is advertised. Writer and creator Bill Gallagher (the mind behind Lark Rise to Candleford) has borrowed only the book's most basic outline. His drama follows the story of Denise, who travels to town looking for work, and finds herself at the country's first department store. Here she struggles as an outsider to prove her retail talent, and develops a romance with the store's owner, the dashing Mr Moray. Yet the shop and it's inhabitants are shaded with a very different hue from it's Parisian inspiration.
Where the Paris store is crowded with goods piled high, 400 bustling staff, and mobs of customers from all social classes, The Paradise of northern England is more neat and refined. In fact, based around a narrow, artificial looking street, the set is a bizarre miniature model of this city scene. Whatever the excuses of budget, all sense of Zola's revolutionary monster - challenging the ways of the old by dealing in enormous volumes and undercutting the prices of the underdogs - is lost in it's polite appearance.
In the place of such weighty themes there is a bland benignity that the characters also share. While a place remains in the plot for Moray's chief assistant, for example, Dudley is a gentle peace-maker, quite removed from the seething misogyny of his literary counterpart. This is not the fierce world of the book. The Paradise opts for pleasantry in place of convincing pain and passion.
Of course, failure to authentically replicate a classic does not automatically undermine The Paradise's success. Indeed there is merit in Gallagher's creation. It is refreshing to watch period dramas not based in the mansions of the aristocracy – or at least not solely. Topped with the stately flourishing of Katherine Glendenning, the focal point is the working lives of ordinary people.
It is particularly cathartic to see female characters not only employed but ambitious. Having failed for most of the first episode to ignite my attention, Denise's final words caught it: “I don't want to be with Moray, I want to be him”. Eating, working and sleeping under the same roof, the residents of The Paradise evoke a warm community spirit. Equally, strong performances from the many supporting characters like Clara and the slightly dappy Pauline, both comical and emotive, do keep you invested in The Paradise.
However, these are the same elements that made Lark Rise to Candleford so enjoyable, and this is part of the problem with The Paradise. For it follows the same formula so exactly, even using many of the same actors, it becomes an irritatingly complacent creation. Where I really lose patience, is in the transformation of Miss Audrey into a mirror image of Lark Rise's Dorcas Lane.
Just as Dorcas had to choose between marriage and a career, so too has Miss Audrey. And she too advice's the young heroine that she no longer faces these boundaries, to her work or relationships. It results in an identical exploration of gender dynamics and women's equality to that in the Oxfordshire countryside. Patriarchy in this 1870s world is a distant memory; bobbing its head occasionally among the ageing smaller shopkeepers, but nowhere to be found in The Paradise. Here men and women interact as happy equals.
It is not the historical inaccuracy of this vision that is most annoying, but it's laziness. The novel Gallagher uses as a template for his rose-tinted world, offered so many alternatives to avoid this repetition. The 'Miss Audrey' of the book is actually married; a woman who earns twice as much as her husband, but struggles to find time for her degenerate son. In Zola's 1870's society gender dynamics are more complex. There is friendship between the sexes, the women's work is beginning to breed equality, but they are still experimenting with the gender boundaries.
At dinner the shop girls sit separately to the men, the management deeming this a more seemly arrangement. As woman suddenly independent and outside of the home, their sexual repute is the constant subject of gossip. Denise has to contend with feeling as though “she was being undressed by all these men” in a world that still treats her as a sexual object. It would have been so much more ambitious to explore these issues of power and progress, and portray a time of transition for women, rather than settling into a comfortable, but ultimately hollow, fantasy.
The result is passable and pleasant, but in such a competitive market, this is no longer enough. ITV have already won the first round in the battle of the period dramas – with the meteoric success of Downton Abbey obliterating the return ofUpstairs, Downstairs. And I suspect when ITV bring their own department-store period drama to our screens in the new year – Mr Selfridge – they might also sink the fortunes of The Paradise.
All images © BBC/Jonathan Ford