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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