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All Downstairs and no Upstairs: why The Paradise can't compete with Downton
Denise, played by Joanna Vanderham, from BBC's The Paradise
Thanks to Downton Abbey, ITV are currently beating the BBC at the ‘lavish period drama’ game. This has hit the BBC very hard, as they’ve always been the leading producers of programmes about young women in bonnets who can’t find a husband.
They could have fought back by stealing the Rovers Return and rebuilding it in Albert Square, but instead they’ve chosen to make The Paradise, a romantic drama set in a mid nineteenth century department store.
It starts this evening, but although the sets look fantastic and the plot will almost certainly be polished and interesting, there’s no way it will beat Downton Abbey in the entertainment stakes. In fact, it won’t even come close.
Why? Well for one thing, it doesn’t star Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham). Bonneville is a fantastic actor whose only flaw is that he only has one facial expression: a pained grimace that’s supposed to call to mind a noble man trapped between tradition and compassion, but instead just makes him look a bit constipated.
Although to be fair The Paradise does feature fantastic ex-Coronation Street actress Sarah Lancashire. Well stolen, BBC, but she’s not quite as iconic as the Rovers.
More importantly: although a department store of that time period would have been very hierarchical, with the owner at the top and the female staff firmly at the bottom (many worked 13 hour shifts) it’s nowhere near as deeply divided as Downton Abbey. The contrast between the indolent life of the upper classes and the day to day toil of ragged underlings like Daisy the kitchen maid is what gives Downton its edge.
In a shop you have infighting amongst staff, small-scale struggles for advancement and- at the top- the manager, but he’s a Carson, not a Lord Grantham: his job is still to serve customers. The Paradise is all downstairs, no upstairs.
Another issue is that, like the vast majority of BBC costume drama, The Paradise is an adaptation of a 19th century novel and therefore has to follow certain rules.
Downton Abbey is entirely original and slightly barmy. It’s given us a taste for scandalous, slightly tacky, soap-opera like period drama. Julian Fellowes has the freedom to write ludicrous plots that cater to the whims of an audience used to the excesses of Eastenders and Corrie.
In contrast, The Paradise is based on Au Bonheur Des Dames, an 1883 Émile Zola novel, and is therefore constrained by the conventions of that time. It is a love story, but a very traditional one: it seems unlikely we’ll see very much bodice ripping and it’s almost certain that no one will run off with an angry, Irish chauffeur.
The BBC are basically the Crawley family, bound by tradition, attached to their classic works of fiction, unable to throw caution to the wind and write a television series where dead Turkish diplomats are found in young aristocratic women’s rooms and have to be carted along a corridor by a long suffering servant and a Countess.
Whereas ITV are the servants: they just want to have a good time and feel no shame whatsoever about making programmes that feature unexpected leaps between time periods, a cheerful lack of historical accuracy and attention seeking plots about housemaids being impregnated by caddish, moustache-twirling house guests.
Also, not content with beating the BBC at its own game by making Downton far more watchable than the similar Upstairs Downstairs (itself originally an ITV programme) ITV are continuing their one-upmanship by making a historic shop-based drama of their very own called Mr Selfridge.
However, as usual the ITV’s offering is set to be a lot more colourful and uproarious, as it’s about Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of the iconic London department store, whose life (conveniently) already reads like the plot of Downton Abbey.
Selfridge’s wife died in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. He then took up with the infamous Dolly Sisters- the Cheeky Girls of their time- and regularly threw lavish, saucy parties at his fancy London mansion in Berkeley Square. Unfortunately (spoiler alert) he then frittered away all his cash and was completely broke by the time he died in 1947.
Even the BBC couldn’t make that story dull.
Although it’s probably best if ITV hang onto it as Dame Maggie Smith and Shirley MacLaine would be excellent as the Dolly Sisters.
Also, if it’s as historically incorrect as Downton they’ll probably end up auditioning for The X Factor.
Below: Gorgeous pictures from The Paradise
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