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The Paradise: Are you being absurd?

Rachel Cooke is not sold on a shop drama’s shoddy script and creaking set.

In a recent interview, the new director general of the BBC, George Entwistle, described The Paradise (Tuesdays, 9pm) – a drama set in a Victorian department store – as “corking”. Oh. That isn’t the word I would use. I think it’s one of the most pathetic things I’ve seen in a long time – and I once sat through an episode of Bonekickers.

The writing is ersatz, anachronistic, ripe as best brie. One character – Miss Audrey, the stern manageress of ladieswear – has even been given a catchphrase of sorts. Her watchword is “sin”. “Run along!” she will tell her shop girls. “Dallying is a great sin.” Or: “Defying is the worst of sins in a department store.” Defying? What a weird use of the present participle. No wonder Sarah Lancashire, who has been given the unenviable task of playing Miss Audrey, appears to be dialling in this particular performance. Even her wig looks mildly humiliated.

The Paradise is supposed to be a loose adaptation of Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames, a novel set in a Paris department store. It’s written by Bill Gallagher, who also did Lark Rise to Candleford. But alas, it’s not Zola’s presence you feel as you gaze on its phoney-looking sets (truly, the ones we built for our school production of Iolanthe looked more sturdy). It’s the dread hand of Julian Fellowes. Oh, how the egregious Downton Abbey, with its miniature plots and its piss-poor dialogue, clambers over prime time, like horsetail over a suburban garden. Suddenly every writer in town has a licence to spout utter bilge, even Tom Stoppard. Just so long as they keep the carriages coming! (Why, I wonder, were people so taken in by Parade’s End? The longer I watched it, the more embarrassed I felt.)

Meanwhile, the looky-likeys merrily spawn. Soon, ITV will screen its very own Victorian department-store drama, Mr Selfridge, starring Jeremy Piven. I wonder if Andrew Davies, its writer, has also been prevailed upon to dispense with the old-fashioned concept of narrative tension.

But back to The Paradise. It’s a glamorous shop after Kendals of Manchester, Bennetts of Derby or (RIP) Lewis’s of Liverpool. I think it’s in the north, but which side of the Pennines, I cannot say; I counted six different comedy “northern” accents before I gave up in despair. The store’s presiding genius is its owner, John Moray (Emun Elliott), a character the script would probably describe as “flamboyant”. Moray is good-looking and good at selling things. In fact, he appears to be in full possession of what Naomi Wolf calls the “goddess array”, by which I mean that when he talks about the latest perfumes to posh-lady customers, they look as though they’re about to have an orgasm.

Basically, he’s a less funny, less charismatic and less well-acted version of Mr Lucas in Are You Being Served? Except he is also ruthless (the little shops around the Paradise can go to hell), and in possession of a dark secret (his wife was killed falling into the foundations of his department store and now no one is allowed to speak of her). Moray is courting Lady Katherine Glendenning (Elaine Cassidy) – “Any man would marry Katherine Glendenning!” says his childhood friend, Dudley (Matthew Mc- Nulty) – but only to get closer to her father, Lord Glendenning (Patrick Malahide), whom he hopes to touch for a loan.

In the first episode he decided to have a sale, hoping to fill up the shop and persuade Lord Glendenning to take a bet on him. Dudley warned him this was risky – however would they pay their suppliers if it proved not to be a hit? – and much was made of the turning of the key as Moray nervously opened the door to let the first customers in. But what do you know? The crowds were there. The sale was a success. The loan was secured.

Does this remind you of anything? Yes: Downton Abbey, in which the financial troubles of Lord Grantham were miraculously solved inside an hour when Matthew came into an unexpected inheritance. But, still. Couldn’t they at least have had a slow start? Have sold only a single corset before lunchtime?

Then our heroine, Denise Lovett (Joanna Vanderham), the Paradise’s newest shop girl, could have ingeniously saved the day. It’s this blonde-haired lovely, incidentally, who is Lady Katherine’s rival in love – and no wonder. Young Denise is so exceptionally retail savvy, she can even sell ready-made and – shock! – corset-less dresses to stuck-up Lady Katherine.

Watch her very carefully. She will probably invent the electronic cash register – that, or the Clinique “computer” – before the series finally staggers to a close.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture