While waiting in line in the post office last week, I happened to glance at the magazines and noticed a bunch of becostumed ladies on the cover of a TV mag. Intrigued, I checked it out: it was a feature on The Paradise, a new costume porn drama starting up on the BBC. When I got home, I checked it out and found out it shared a writer with Lark Rise to Candleford. My guard was up. I tried so hard to like Lark Rise but really, really didn’t. Still, I was willing to give The Paradise a go. After all, I stuck with Parade’s End, didn’t I?
Before I went in, I developed certain expectations. Even though this is based on a Zola novel, I wasn’t expecting high art or some fascinating portrait of the human condition. I was expecting a bit of cheese, a bit of soap. And so, I wasn’t let down at all by the premiere. I got both of those things. But despite its weaknesses, I also found some things to enjoy and come back for, so I’ll stick around for a bit. Let’s see what we’re working with.
A pretty blonde young woman arrives in some Northern city, looking about as bright and wide-eyed as it’s possible for a non-animated character to look. She pauses to look at The Paradise, a huge, white, ornate-looking store with impressive window displays that makes all the shops around it look downright shabby. She glances in the window and catches the eye of a man inside who’s helping two customers. He gawks back because she’s just that intensely pretty. We should probably just call her Special Snowflake right now, even though her name’s Denise. Denise also witnesses a woman being turned out on her ear by a slightly sinister half-bald man who should totally be played by David Bradley, but is instead played by a man who could definitely be his brother.
Denise crosses the street to a draper’s shop, where she greets the proprietor familiarly with a hug. He’s her uncle, and when he notices she’s got luggage he realizes she’s there to stay. She didn’t even send a note? Rude! He reluctantly tells her he can’t take her on, because his business is getting trounced by The Paradise. He suggests she come back in a few months’ time.
At The Par, the two owners (I think)—Moray (the man Denise spotted through the window) and Dudley—discuss the most recent figures, which are good. Not good enough for Moray, though. He wants more, more, more!
Denise, meanwhile, re-crosses the road and walks into The Paradise, wandering around and gawking at all the fancy displays. A young salesman pops up and asks what she’s looking for. She says she wants a job and he suggests she head to ladieswear, which has just lost a girl. Convenient! He introduces himself as Sam, which is appropriate, considering he looks like he just hopped out of the Shire. He gives Denise a blue ribbon to wear, to distract the snots up in ladieswear from Denise’s country-esque boots.
Up to ladieswear Denise goes, and all the salesgirls up there give her one hell of a stink eye. She asks one to introduce her to Miss Audrey, the manager, and the woman clearly thinks this is all a joke, but she takes her to Miss A nonetheless. Miss Audrey asks for Denise’s experience (working at a shop in her hometown, Peebles), and takes the opportunity to totally insult Peebles for no reason at all. As Moray wanders in, Miss A asks for Denise’s references, which apparently come from her uncle, Mr. Lovett. Moray is happy to employ the niece of his rival, which is a bit gross, in a sense, because it’s like he’s trying to shove his prosperity in the guy’s face, but at least Denise gets a job out of it. Miss A tries to reassert herself by telling Denise they’ll let her know, but you know she’s already got the job.
Moray goes to visit his girlfriend, who lives in a huge mansion and happily reports that her father’s agreed to speak with him about some loan he’s after. He thanks her (and gives her a name—Catherine), and now that he’s buttered up, she tells him she’s got some girlfriends joining them for tea, because they want to look him over.
Denise and her uncle sit down for high tea and Lovett tells her that The Par used to be small and was owned by someone else, but then Moray married the man’s daughter, inherited the store, and then his wife conveniently died. And the place has grown and grown ever since. “Someone has to stop him,” Lovett growls. Competition sucks, man, but that’s kind of the way of the world, no? You kind of have to suck it up and readjust accordingly or watch your business slowly die.
But that someone who’ll stop Moray isn’t necessarily under his roof. A letter arrives giving Denise the job. Her uncle’s not happy, but she reminds him that she needs to work to earn enough to live, so he shuts up and just looks disappointed.
Over tea, Moray’s laying it on seriously thick, showing Catherine’s friends (and us) just how good a salesman he is as he poetically describes some perfume. The ladies are mesmerized and even seem to consider the novelty of setting foot in such a place as The Paradise, where they might end up shopping beside some grocer’s wife. Catherine looks like she could just do him right there on the parlor carpet.
Later, the ladies observe from afar while Moray talks to Catherine’s father. One of them declares Moray one of the most attractive men for 100 miles. Lady, sorry, but you need to get out more. He’s not bad looking, by any means, but he’s got nothing on the boys from Game of Thrones. The girlfriends approve.
Catherine’s dad, however, is more cautious. He doesn’t think the world really needs that many more petticoats and whatnots, but Moray tells him expansion is necessary for success. Dad knows Moray’s been turned down by every bank in town, so he’s a bit desperate. He also believes that women are fickle and may soon tire of the novelty of The Paradise. Moray offers to show him just how loved the place is.
Back with the girls, talk has turned to the possibility of an impending proposal. Catherine plays coy, but the ladies guess she and Moray have at least discussed the possibility of marriage.
Moray departs, and after seeing him off, Catherine’s dad asks her why she had to fall for that guy, of all the men in England? She doesn’t answer, instead asking if he approved the loan. He tells her he’s waiting until he can see what the place has to offer and admits the man brings out something in his daughter that disturbs him.
Denise shows up for her first day of work and is greeted by a charming young urchin straight out of Dickens named Arthur who shows her around and leads her to the dressing room, where she and Sam exchange a friendly smile. The ladieswear ladies giggle at the mirror and Miss A scolds Denise for dallying (dallying’s a sin! Everything’s a sin with this lady) before handing her a uniform and turning her attention to a chipmonkey young woman named Pauline, who apologizes for being late and babbles about her hair. Pauline tells Denise she can share a room with her. She seems chipper and friendly.
Up in ladieswear, Pauline makes a quick adjustment to Denise’s uniform and shows her the blackboard where they all write their names to keep track of whose turn it is to wait on a customer and (hopefully) get a commission. Miss A comes by, admonishes Pauline for abandoning haberdashery, and then tells Denise to tie her hair up already. She also tells her that there will be no relations with the male staff. Apparently, that’s how Denise’s predecessor got canned.
Dudley is having a chat with Not David Bradley (Jonas). They talk business a bit (Jonas is clearly the eyes and ears of management, and he seems pretty good at it) and Dudley brings up Moray’s expansion plans. He asks Jonas if Moray’s asked him to look into anything lately. Jonas says that’s between him and Moray, but Dudley insists. He’s the money man and is worried about them overreaching.
That night, Denise reports to her new room, which she’s sharing with Pauline and one of the bitchier girls. Pauline tells Denise they’re all going out but Denise refuses, since she’s got no cash these days. Denise asks how Moray’s wife died, and Bitchy tells her sharply not to bring that woman up in The Paradise, ever. Pauline adds that there was an accident and she died. She tries to get Denise to go with them again, but Denise again refuses. Pauline kindly warns her to start joining in, or the other girls will freeze her out.
The following day, Arthur joins Moray, who’s staring up at the store, trying to figure out how to prove to Catherine’s dad that the store is awesome. Moray spots Lovett across the road and tells him Denise is doing well. Lovett says she should be in his shop, and she will be, soon enough. Moray tells him the days of the small shop are dying. Thanks, jerkass. Way to kick a guy who’s down. Lovett says The Paradise is just a novelty, and Moray counters by telling him he’ll lose this fight, because he’s not taking on a man, he’s taking on progress. Cue the cheese! Lovett accuses Moray of looking at all his customers as just cattle herding through the door, and to be fair, that’s a pretty dickish comment to make too. Just because his store’s bigger doesn’t necessarily mean Moray values his customers less than you do, Lovett. Did you know the name, birthday, and personal details of each and every person who wandered into your shop? I doubt it. The regulars, yes, but not everyone.
The conversation, which ends with Lovett accusing him of constantly undercutting prices, gives Moray an idea: a giant sale! Lots and lots of goods, all marked down to bargain basement prices. Dudley is worried about how they’ll pay for all these goods he wants to order and wants to tone the whole thing down, but Moray knows that won’t work. They need to go big! Progress, Dudley! Dudley isn’t sure how they’ll pay their suppliers for all these goods, but Moray’s figured that out too: they won’t! They’ll just take delivery and then stall until after the sale. Uh, why would they deliver everything without payment in the first place? Was that common practice? Also, way to start poisoning the relationship with your suppliers there, Moray. You think at least some of them won’t be upset with you for refusing to pay for their goods for an indeterminate (for them) amount of time? Moray doesn’t care, because this is the proof he needs for Catherine’s father, Lord Glendenning. A one-day sale? That’s all the guy needs? That’s easy.
Upstairs, Jonas comes across Denise and tells her he knows she was asking questions about the late Mrs. Moray. He says she fell into the foundations of the first expansion in the dark. Yeah, I can see why some people would find that rather suspicious. Jonas tells her that, one day, Moray will call her to his office, and she’d better be ready. He says that in about the most menacing, creepy way possible.
Catherine and her two friends show up at the store while everyone gawks. Pauline tells Denise that Catherine is one of the richest women in the city and everyone says that she and Moray are getting married someday. Pauline immediately deduces that Denise is in love with Moray, and I don’t know why she thinks that, since Denise has the same expression on her face she always does and she and Moray have zero chemistry. Denise awkwardly denies it and asks about this “going to his office” thing. Pauline tells her that everyone’s on probation when they first start out, and they get called to his office to find out if they’re going to stay or go. She gets serious and tells Denise that some girls who are afraid of losing their jobs, when they go to his office, well… Or so she’s heard.
Dudley congratulates Moray on getting Catherine to The Paradise and tells him the gossip about he and Catherine marrying. He thinks it’s been long enough since the late Mrs. died, even though that’s totally not his call to make.
Moray goes out onto the sales floor to help Catherine and her friends. One tries to play hard to get, but we already know how good Moray is with these ladies. He takes all of thirty seconds to wrap them right around his finger.
In ladieswear, Bitchy (whose name appears to actually be Clara) erases Denise’s name from the blackboard and goes to help a customer herself. Denise calls her own it, and their argument attracts Miss A’s attention. Denise tattles and Miss A takes Clara’s part, telling Denise she doesn’t know what she’s doing yet and should get back to folding and stacking. Clara smirks and heads off.
Catherine and Moray are having a discussion in his office. She tells him his store’s cute and she thought she’d stop by and pick up some trinket. He suggests she visit the ladieswear department but she balks at the idea of wearing something off the rack. He tells her men don’t care if a woman’s dress is hand sewn. He clearly only cares what’s underneath it. She pecks him on the cheek and goes to leave, but first she pauses and tells him she’s sorry her father didn’t agree to his plans right away. She suggests they work on him together, but Moray’s already making his own plans to overcome her father’s resistance. She urges him to tell her, but he won’t.
He tells the staff instead. That evening, at a mass meeting, he tells them about the sale, getting them all worked up and excited by the prospect of big, big commissions. Arthur backs him up with some well-placed brownnosing and it looks like everyone’s looking forward to the big day.
At dinner, they chat about their plans for their commissions. Clara notes Jonas scribbling away in some notebook, which he does constantly, apparently. Sam turns their attentions to Miss A, who’s sitting all alone and watching everyone else. He says they could all end up like her, lonely, with only their job to keep them company at night. For some reason, the girls think that’s hilarious.
Catherine greets her father as he comes in, and she’s so nice he immediately realizes something’s up. She sits him down and asks him to give her her mother’s engagement ring, even though Moray hasn’t proposed. She promises her dad that she’ll always be his sweet and affectionate little girl, while giving him the sex eyes she always shoots at Moray, which makes this scene so, so creepy. He’s worried she’s rushing into marriage with undue haste.
The following day, Catherine returns to The Paradise, wearing a terrible, cheap-looking dress that does her dressmaker no credit. She goes to ladieswear, where Miss A starts fawning over her and calls Clara over to help. Clara suggests a tea gown that’s just come in and offers to have Denise model it for her. As Denise goes to get out of her dress, Clara grabs a different box from the original one and hands that through the curtains to her. They wait, and wait, and wait, and finally Miss A goes back to see what’s happening. Denise tells her the dress doesn’t fit. Miss A starts fussing around with it behind the curtains, and then Denise emerges…half dressed. She’s just got the dress around her waist and is wrapping the sleeves around herself. What the hell? Why did Miss A let her go out like that? Why didn’t they grab the bigger size? What was Clara after, doing this? How would it discredit Denise if the dress didn’t fit? This is pretty stupid.
Anyway, Catherine is completely appalled, for some reason (lady, the dress just doesn’t fit! What’s the big deal! You’ve never seen a girl in a corset before?) and prepares to leave, but Denise’s inner awesome saleswoman kicks in and she starts selling the dress hard. While she speaks, unknown to her, Moray pokes his head in and watches. Catherine just barely inclines her head to Miss A. Looks like Denise has made her first sale. She looks like she’s about to throw up.
Lord Glendenning is meeting with Moray again and telling him that his partners aren’t keen on investing in retail. Moray tells him it’s his decision, and he should really check out the sale and see how he feels then. Glendenning brings up Catherine and warns Moray that, if he breaks her heart, he’ll destroy him.
Back at the office, Dudley once again tries to talk him out of the sale, although I’d think that ship has really sailed, hasn’t it, Dudley? Moray scolds him for being so backward thinking and Dudley lamely tries to threaten Moray, before realizing he sucks at it.
That night, Dudley heads into the pub across the road, watched by Jonas.
The girls (minus Denise) hit the pub too, Clara bitching about Denise along the way. They run into their former coworker, Lucille, who’s now begging on the streets. Clara tells her this is what happens when you’re dumb enough to get caught, but Pauline kindly gives the woman some money.
In ladieswear, Denise amuses herself creating a display with a dress and matching accessories. She hears Jonas and Moray come in and hides. Jonas tells him Dudley’s been meeting secretly with some of the suppliers. Jonas can’t believe Dudley would do this, because they’re such good friends, even though Dudley’s been quite vociferously voicing his doubts for a while now. Jonas says Dudley seemed to be telling the suppliers that they may not get paid for the orders that have been placed. If that’s true, than Dudley is a moron of the first order. I mean, talk about trashing your business reputation for no reason at all! Why would those suppliers continue to do business with you? Also, why are they having this discussion in the ladieswear department instead of in Moray’s office? Presumably so Denise can more easily overhear them. Contrived.
Moray goes for a very cozy dinner with Catherine. I’m calling bullshit on this. No way would a young unmarried woman of that time have been allowed to have dinner alone with any man, not even her fiancé. They had chaperones and they were watched all the time. Her reputation would have been ruined if she’d done such a thing.
She pulls out the ring and shows it to him. Wow, way to put the pressure on, girl. Moray tries to play dumb and she tells him it’s about time to make this thing official. He explodes and accuses her of trying to trap him, telling her he’s never suggested he wanted to marry her. Woah, Moray. You may not have said the words, but at that time, allowing a woman you’re dating to call you “darling” was a pretty big thing. You had to know what sort of expectations she’d have. This can’t be at all surprising. She asks him why he keeps pushing her away, and then begins gasping for air, asking him for help with her dress, because she can’t breathe. Sweetie, undoing the dress won’t do a thing—you have to undo the corset underneath. Moray complies, unbuttoning her bodice, and she goes for his neck like she’s Lucy Westenra. He pushes her away, but then kisses her hungrily. Mixed messages, dude.
The girls return to their dorm and wake Denise so they can have a little drinking party. The noise wakes Miss A, who comes up. The girls panic and send Denise out, because she’s the only sober one. Denise, for some reason, pretends to be sleepwalking, and Pauline amazingly comes out and immediately realizes what Denise is trying to do and steers her back into the room. Miss A sniffs that she never should have taken on a girl from Peebles. What’s her problem with Peebles? It’s not some out-of-the-way hamlet, it’s a pretty good-sized town and, at the time, was a highly fashionable spa resort. Does she hate Bath too?
Moray hangs out in his office, looking conflicted and staring at a portrait of his rather lovely first wife.
Dudley’s organizing sale signs up in ladieswear the next day. Denise comes in, walks right over to him, and warns him not to do anything he’ll regret. Like anybody would do that their first week or so on the job. To their boss. Jonas comes in and tells Denise she’s wanted in Moray’s office. Pauline smiles encouragingly, Clara glares, and the others look kinda bland as they watch her walk past.
Moray’s office. He starts off by telling her that there are 100 girls who could take her place. Very encouraging, Moray. He asks if she likes it there and she says she does and wants to stay. He gets a bit creepy, seeming mesmerized by her hair, suggesting she let a little piece down loose as a “suggestive imperfection.” I don’t know if this is supposed to seem somehow sexy between them, but it’s not. It’s kinda skeevy. He moves away (thankfully) and says he heard about her success with Catherine. Her probation’s over and she’s a full-fledged member of the Paradise family. She turns to leave, but first he asks if the display she created is attracting customers. He knows she was hiding the night before, because he sees everything. Her performance the night before amuses him, and he wonders what kind of girl has “such spirit.” The spirit to hide? What spirit is he talking about? He tells her she’s not like the other girls and wonders if she realizes the talents she has. Jesus, Moray, she just created a frigging display. And it’s not like she invented the concept or anything.
Dudley comes in, so Moray wraps things up and sends Denise away, after telling her he expects her to be absolutely loyal to both himself and The Paradise.
Once she’s gone, Moray asks Dudley what he’s been up to. Dudley tells him he’s been trying to save him from himself. So, he arranged to return the goods to their suppliers if they can’t pay for them. And the suppliers have responded by demanding payment on delivery. Dudley says he only meant to prevent disaster and huge debts. Moray says they need to be strong men, but Dudley was weak and buckled. Dudley tells Moray he doesn’t understand how big the risk is, but Moray says he does and is going forward anyway, and that’s his decision. He says they’ve gone too far to turn back now, and he needs this sale to go forward and bring in lots and lots of customers. He tells Dudley to go back to his friends and tell them to bring their goods, and if he can’t pay them, they can have the store. I’m sure this is supposed to be tense, but we all know the sale’s going to be an enormous success, so it really isn’t.
Denise returns to ladieswear and everyone looks up in shock. Why are they surprised she’s back? Did they really think that, after the sale to Catherine, she’d be canned? Denise tells Miss A that her probation is over. Miss A tells her to straighten her hair out and get back to work. Clara looks pissed.
Denise delivers a lovely basket of food to her uncle’s and leaves it on the table.
Later, Clara creeps up to Moray’s office, pinches her cheeks, and knocks. When he opens, she tells him she’s been by a couple of times in the last week but didn’t have the nerve to knock. He tells her to go out and find some nice young man. Cold, dude. Apparently, these two have had a thing in the past, and she doesn’t want to admit it’s over. He closes the door in her face.
Clara goes back upstairs and attacks Denise in her bed, babbling about how Moray laid in her arms and told her things, dangerous things. Wow, Clara is crazy. Like Moray would tell her anything incriminating, ever. He’s reckless, but not in that way. Clara threatens to go telling the whole city how Moray’s wife died, like anyone would really listen to a disgruntled employee (or ex-employee as it would be at that point.) Pauline tells her she wouldn’t dare do such a thing, but I don’t know, Pauline. Crazy.
It’s the Big Day. Salespeople hang bunting and set the place up. Moray walks through ahead of opening, smiling, looking at his very Fortnum and Mason-looking handiwork, and recalling the words of all the naysayers. He allows himself a moment of doubt, but then opens the front door and people flood in like it’s Black Friday at a Wal-Mart. Except with fewer shootings and injuries. Before long, the place is packed. In the middle of all the hubbub, Denise makes her way over to Clara to tell her that Moray totally doesn’t have a crush on her or anything. First: is this really the time, Denise? Second: you’re the new girl, maybe keep your distance from crazytown for a while. Really, what brand new employee starts running around their new place of employ dealing out unsolicited advice to bosses and coworkers? Third: why does she think Clara thinks Moray’s got a thing for Denise? Did I miss something? Did she assume that because she’s the one Clara went after the night before? I would have assumed that was because Clara just doesn’t much like Denise.
Denise goes on to warn Clara that she’ll get kicked into the street like Lucille did. Yes, Denise is so special she knows best about everything. Clara looks like she’s about to give Denise a piece of her mind, but Miss A comes over and dispatches Denise to fetch some hats.
Glendenning, with Catherine beaming beside him, congratulates Moray on being able to fill his store on a single day by practically giving stuff away. Thankfully, he realizes that it’s going to take more than a single day to convince his partners at the bank. Moray says he doesn’t want to borrow money from the bank, he wants it to be a personal loan from Glendenning. Catherine turns on the sex eyes again, for some strange reason. This woman needs to get another expression. The two men shake on it. Moray moves on to another matter: dumping Catherine. He tells her it would be bad for business for him to take himself off the market at this sensitive time. Are people really coming to shop at this store because the owner’s single? Glendenning backs Moray, because he’s just not into this relationship anyway. Moray pulls Catherine aside for a private chat (in the middle of the sales floor) and tells her he “regrets what happened,” and urges her to, basically, find someone else. It’s not you, it’s me! She thinks he’s still clinging to his dead wife and tells him to just admit she’s dead already.
Lovett shows up with the basket Denise brought him to complain about her having dared to treat him to some treats with the commission she earned herself. Ungrateful jerk. Also: is he trying to get her fired? I can’t imagine why else he’d wait until now—the middle of a busy sales day—to come over and berate her and threaten to throw the gift in her boss’s face. She dropped that basket off at least a day ago. Denise tells him he’d be harming her if he does anything rash and he shoves the basket into her hands and stomps off. I see why he’s frustrated, but what an obnoxious baby.
That evening, Dudley’s counting up the cash when Jonas comes in and tells him Moray wants all the money brought to the sales floor. Dudley obeys and offers his resignation, but that’s not what Moray wants. He wants Dudley to believe in him, and The Paradise. Bromance!
Moray turns and thanks everyone for their great work that day. He invites them all to come forward for their bonuses and they happily do. Pauline sees Denise sizing up Moray and guesses again that she’s in love with him. Denise says she’s not, she wants to be him.
Before hitting the sales floor the next time, Denise pulls down a little lock of hair, like Moray likes. Miss A’s going to spit a pigeon over that.