söndag 24 februari 2013

Battle of the department stores

Well, what do you know. There isn't only one costume drama out there set in a department store with a bearded and supposedly charismatic store owner as main male protagonist. There are two of them. BBC got in first with The Paradise, which should normally have meant that they won the battle, because, come on, how much department-store costume drama can people take? Against the odds, though, I'm starting to think that ITV's Mr Selfridge has the edge, after all. A second series is commissioned for both dramas, so viewer-wise it seems to be a draw. But Auntie had better look out - they can't really afford to lose any more costume drama face-offs to ITV.

I've watched the whole first series of The Paradise now, and it did get better after a doubtful beginning. But it's still far from being costume drama heaven. It reminds me of From Lark Rise to Candleford with added suspicious deaths. Its protagonists live through a series of little dramas, and sometimes surprising facts emerge about the characters. Miss Audrey - not a dragon after all but more of a fussy spinster in the Misses Pratt mould - freely confesses her admiration for the heroine's salesmanship and her professional jealousy in one and the same scene. The envious shop-girl rival turns out to have an illegitimate daughter in an orphanage to whom she sends money: hence the venom displayed towards a more successful colleague. The conniving heiress, Miss Glendenning, is actually genuinely in love with the hopeless hero Mr Moray. The sinister employee Jonas, whose loyalty to the store is limitless, has a back story to die for (yes, but to kill for?). Here's the rum thing, though - these attempts to give the characters added depth don't quite work. I wish I knew the magic formula which can make a back story stick and become part how one views a character, but sometimes they just seem to get away like Peter Pan's shadow. The characters in The Paradise, like the ones in Lark Rise, are nice enough, but they remain stubbornly shallow. The heroine Denise is a plus, though. That Denise, who is so good at her job, should succeed and advance professionally becomes much more important than if she bags Moray or not. This is the first drama, as far as I remember, where I have witnessed a love scene between the hero and heroine and wished that they would not get together - for their own sakes, not because there is a sexy villain waiting in the wings (there isn't). "Are you crazy, girl?" I was thinking. "Are you going to risk your whole career for that? And as for you, Moray, how can you even think of ditching the heiress when her daddy's got you and your store in his pocket? Get a grip!"

The Paradise is supposedly based on a novel by Emile Zola. I doubt Zola would own it, though (not necessarily a bad thing). I'd guess it is as much based on Zola as Mr Selfridge is based on a true story. The difference between the dramas can be illustrated by the accompanying music - good in both cases. The Paradise's elegant signature tune wouldn't sound out of place in a regency ball-room. Mr Selfridge's signature tune is swirling and excitable, promising high drama to come. It reminded me of the brass band hired by Selfridge to kick up a show when his store was no more than a hole in the ground. The problem is, there's a limit to how long you can simply make promises. Sooner or later you have to deliver.

Maybe it's because my expectations were so very low regarding Mr Selfridge that I am, after all, pleasantly surprised by it. And perhaps it is a bit unfair to rate it above The Paradise. But apparently Swedish Television did the same thing: Mr Selfridge is showing now, whereas The Paradise wasn't shown at all (I had to buy the DVD). I have just seen the fourth episode of Mr Selfridge, and yes, it does seem like it's going places.

Granted, Mr Selfridge is as problematic a hero as Mr Moray. I see little point in both of them. What do women see in them? Why are their staff so convinced about their genius? Search me. And granted, there are stock characters in Mr Selfridge - the pouting variety-girl mistress, the constantly worried accountant etc. - but there are other characters about whom you're not sure at first, and it makes something of a refreshing change not to have them labelled like jam jars from the word go. Is the shop girl Agnes Towler really a "fresh and natural" heroine or a bit of a minx, forced to be tough because of her troubled family background? Is Victor the waiter good news for her, or a chancer? Maybe it's the handsome store decorator Henri Leclair who is her true match, or is his interest in her purely professional? Are head of personnel Mr Grove and his secret mistress Miss Mardle store tyrants or decent sorts? And what will Lady Mae, former chorus girl and now a society dame who refuses herself nothing, ask as return favour from Mr Selfridge for having found a him a financer and saved his bacon?

Mr Selfridge takes its time answering these questions, and sometimes I wonder whether the price for not pigeon-holing the characters is that they become a bit colourless. But I live in hope - plot strands left vague at first are beginning to pay off. I can see myself warming to this show rather more than to The Paradise. More v for villain factor is needed, though. Mr Perez, Victor's shady boss, should start taking a larger part in proceedings. The lad's not putting out for the company's good - it's high time, surely, to add a bit of pressure?