26/09/2012 09:53 | By Hilary Wardle, contributor, MSN TV

TV review: Is The Paradise another Downton Abbey?

Reviewed: Does The Paradise - the BBC's new glossy period drama - have what it takes to knock Downton Abbey off its throne?

Cast of BBC's The Paradise (© Cast of BBC's The Paradise. Image: BBC)


BBC adaptation of French novelist Émile Zola's 1883 novel, Au Bonheur Des Dames. Too bad the first episode was all costume and no drama.


The sets were excellent and dripping with period detail. Apparently, 19th century department stores were constructed from frills, ruffles, ornate vases and bits of lace rather than the more conventional bricks and mortar. One thing's for sure, it wouldn't survive a strong gale...


A sequence where shop assistant Denise had to pretend to be sleepwalking to cover for her colleagues' late night gin party was entirely pointless, not to mention unconvincing; she didn't even have her eyes closed.

Video: Get a flavour of The Paradise by watching the trailer

Full review:

The Paradise centres around Denise Lovatt (ably played by Joanna Vanderham), a provincial girl from Peebles who applies to work in a swanky department store in Victorian London.

She's scrutinised disapprovingly by the head of ladieswear and told that a) she isn't really stylish enough to work there b) her hair is unfashionable and c) asking for a job is a bit of a cheeky, common thing to do.

Despite these setbacks, Denise is offered - and accepts - a probationary position at the store. However, she's living with her uncle, a man who hates The Paradise as he owns a traditional drapers shop across the street. Awkward.

"This slice of narrative tension doesn't really go anywhere."

It's a perfect set-up for built-in drama but unfortunately, like most of the plot, this slice of narrative tension doesn't really go anywhere.

I can't see Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes wasting a similar opportunity; he'd be all over that like a rash.

Later, Denise's uncle angrily returns a basket of food she's left in his shop as a gift - he then leaves again without making a scene. That really is about as exciting as The Paradise's opener got. At this point, it seems to have far more in common with sleep-inducing drama Lark Rise to Candleford than the soapy machinations of Downton Abbey.

The Paradise has a wonderful cast, including Sarah Lancashire (Lark Rise To Candleford), David Hayman (Trial And Retribution), and Emun Elliott (Game Of Thrones), but several of the characters they play are flat and one-dimensional.

It's also a shame to see the talent hampered by clunky dialogue. "Defying is the worst of sins in a department store," Sarah Lancashire's Miss Audrey says at one point. Most things were a sin in her eyes, including having long hair, being Scottish and wanting to sell dresses to customers.

Hooray for Moray

Hooray then for rakish shop owner Mr Moray (played by Emun Elliot)! He did add a bit of spice to proceedings; a widower (his wife died in suspicious circumstances), he was constantly pursued by female admirers. I half expected them all to chase him around the shop to the Benny Hill theme.

But even Moray couldn't escape the failings in the script: "If you want to fight me, Edmund, you will lose," he said to his rival. "Because it is not a man you are taking on. It is progress." That sounds more like a political soundbite than a line of dramatic dialogue.

While the romantic Tribulations of Mr Moray made for fairly interesting viewing, much of the episode revolved around his plan to hold a sale. It's as gripping as it sounds.

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What did you think of The Paradise?

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  1. 84 %
    I liked it - superb costume drama
    194 votes
    16 %
    I hated it - boring and overrated
    38 votes

Total Responses: 232
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Would a present-day drama about a young woman from a small Scottish town applying to work in the clothing section of John Lewis hold viewers' attention? Of course not. So why the BBC thought the subject matter would be more exciting by putting the cast in ruffled collars and setting it in 1880 is anyone's guess.

Can't argue with the production values; this is a BBC costume drama and, for the most part, Auntie owns this genre. But the first episode of The Paradise (reported to have been rushed on air to avoid clashing with ITV's forthcoming department store drama, Mr Selfridge) is all style and very little substance.

It may improve over its run, but I think I'd rather watch a documentary about the history of taps narrated by Tim Henman. If you're a period drama fan, you may enjoy The Paradise. For everyone else, there's always Downton Abbey.

  • Verdict: The Paradise passes the time agreeably enough, but it doesn't engage

    Star grade

What other critics said about The Paradise

"A few grumpy old men - this one included - couldn't give a stuff." - Sam Wollaston in The Guardian

"The first episode was such a pastiche, it's hard to see how [Victoria] Wood could manage to send it up any further." - Neil Midgley in The Telegraph

What viewers said on Twitter

Sean Dodson‏ (@seandodson): "Disappointed with BBC's The #Paradise. Taking Zola out of France is like setting Oliver Twist in Rome or taking the politics out of Tolstoy"

Dave (‏@_cerberus_): "This is typically BBC costume drama - gorgeous costumes, lovely cast. #Paradise"

The Paradise continues on BBC1

The views in this article are those of the author alone and not of MSN or Microsoft

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