Mary Queen of Frocks (Channel 4)

Too much Mary Portas makes Rachel Cooke feel queasy and cross.

Mary Queen of Frocks
Channel 4

When the retail guru Mary Portas first appeared on our TV screens, a great big lollipop of indignation and energy, I cheered. What was there not to like? It wasn't just that - crikey - she is an older woman, with laughter lines and opinions of her own. Nor was it her Sitwell-style jewellery (it seemed that, just like Edith, she had chosen it to offset her superb nose). No, mostly it was that Portas was clearly righteous, for all that I am ordinarily reluctant to waste much precious moral energy on bored shop assistants and their clueless managers. I liked her campaign against demoralising strip lighting, depressing nylon and stinky, second-hand sheepskins. I liked it almost as much as her weird knuckledusters and Blake's 7 pendants.

The cheering ceased some time ago. Those who make it big on television suddenly and unexpectedly often calcify more quickly than their professional counterparts, with the mannerisms that once made them so charming seeming phony and over the top. Portas is now hammier than John Gielgud and a good deal less convincing. Worse, she is compromised.

The woman whom David Cameron has asked for advice on how to save our high streets also runs a consultancy called Yellowdoor, which does PR for Westfield, owner of two vast shopping centres in London. So how does that work, exactly? Perhaps she is going to recommend that we simply get rid of high streets altogether.

Her new series, Mary Queen of Frocks (Tuesdays, 9pm), sticks in the craw for the reasons above - she's more affected than ever and one wonders constantly about conflicts of interest - and a few more besides.

Portas has, in fashion terms, gone native - by which I mean that she uses ridiculous words, such as "edited" (as in, "I've edited every piece") when really she means "chosen". She makes important "business" calls in cafés. She bursts into tears when the designer Antonio Berardi praises her - yes, praises her - and rushes to the loo, sobbing. Meanwhile, her ego is as rampant as bindweed.

The series follows her efforts to open a shop that sells clothes - tasteful, sexy and modern clothes - to 40-plus women, a plan motivated, or so she says, by her conviction that no one caters to this group. OK, fine. The only trouble is that what this means in practice is that she thinks everyone wants to look just like her.

I am sure that some women do want to look like her. I draw the line at the Belisha-beacon bob, but I wouldn't mind strutting around in drag queen heels and leather trousers. Only I am about a foot shorter than Portas and I have tits and a bum.

That not all women are in possession of her ace figure seems momentarily to have escaped Portas's mind, in spite of how some of the
“ordinary" customers on whom she will road-test her clothes have helpfully made models of their curvaceous torsos from duct tape and posted them to her.

To help her design her capsule collection, Portas has enlisted the help of her partner, Melanie Rickey, who works at Grazia magazine. What does Melanie look like? Oh, she's tall, too, and extremely thin, and basically looks like a model (I know this because I used to work with her; viewers know this because Mary helpfully showed us a video of their super-glam wedding).

The feeling grows that there is something slightly off about this project. Every time I saw the word "Yellowdoor" - Mary is often seen sitting at her desk at her consultancy, waving her "Swifty" Lazar spectacles in suitably creative fashion - I felt cross and mildly queasy. Portas's backer is House of Fraser; its chief executive has told her that he needs her first boutique, in the department store's Oxford Street branch, to take £2m in its first year.

How much she is making, we are not told - but presumably she is not doing this for free. In other words, this is a potentially huge business venture, dressed up as a worthy (and slightly patronising) campaign for us poor ickle fortysomethings, most of whom can already find plenty of stuff that we like in the shops, if only we had a spare moment to look.

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 10 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The next great depression