söndag 30 mars 2014

The Paradise series two: here come the villains

Funny, I never thought I'd be sad to hear The Paradise would be discontinued. However, it picked itself up so considerably in its second series that it does seem a bit of a shame that the Beeb is axing it. Its viewer numbers apparently - and unfairly - dropped a little, from six to five million, but that's no disaster surely? Meanwhile Mr Selfridge on ITV did better and will be returning for a third series. I did read, though, that the average viewer numbers for series two were 6.4 million. That's not that much more than The Paradise. On average, I would have wished both series to have been rewarded with increasing viewer numbers, as they were both more ambitious second time around - and they'd both added some v for villain factor.

Finally, villains seem to be in again. After the cosy country-life drought (see Cranford), and the prestigious high-brow drama drought (see Parade's End), they're back. This return to traditional storytelling virtues - including classic plot ploys like the mischief-making villain - can only be applauded. Has the lesson finally been learned now? No more "anti-Downton" shows, please!

To start with The Paradise, the characters finally managed to get and hold on to a bit of depth this time around. Sadly, Patrick Malahide's Lord Glendenning has kicked the bucket, but in return his daughter Katherine's gone and married the sinister ex-soldier Tom Weston, after she was thrown over by Moray - an event she somehow seems to have managed to look like she threw him over. After a year, Moray, ousted from the store by Lord Glendenning, is recalled as manager by Katherine, who wants to find some way to get even. Weston isn't fooled by her "we just went separate ways" story and soon realises that her old love lingers (and gets in the way of her revenge plans). Not even an easy-going hubby would be pleased by this, and Weston is emphatically not an easy-going hubby. Meanwhile, Denise - whom no-one has even contemplated giving the boot - is working her way up the store ladder and is outshining her beau Moray at every turn, as the Westons are pleased to be able point out to him.

Weston is villain No. 1 - what you could call a villain pin-up. He's good-looking in a craggy sort of way, he has a fetching traumatic past, and Ben Daniels who plays him has earned the "and-slot" in the credits, reserved for actors whose characters stick out from the crowd that extra little bit. But there is also a villain No. 2: Moray wants to get back ownership over The Paradise, and so unwisely enters an alliance with another storekeeper, Mr Fenton. Fenton is a more traditional kind of villain: he has gold-rimmed spectacles and a slight stammer and sits in coaches a lot plotting away. We know he's bad news because he starts out trying to sabotage The Paradise, before hitting on an extremely elaborate plot by which Moray should make the Westons disappear simply by being a first-class pill. I'm not in any way denigrating villain pin-ups - they've done the villain-loving community a great service in later years by making baddie-fancying more of a mainstream pastime - but it is pleasant to encounter a good old-fashioned unglam plotter now and again, the kind of crook who in days gone by would have been played by Donald Pleasance. In this instance, Fenton is played by the always excellent Adrian Scarborough. He was the sweet butler in the new Upstairs Downstairs, but as Doctor Who fans already know, he can do bad guys just as well.

Now, of course it's not just because of the villains that The Paradise series two is an improvement on the last one. In fact, the most interesting characters besides the lovely Denise are Katherine and Clara, her erstwhile rivals (though Clara is now a chum). Sympathies and alliances extend across the good character-bad character border, which is always enriching for a drama. It's drearily predictable when all the good characters like each other and hate all the bad characters, and the bad characters hate them back and are either grumpily allied to fellow baddies or at each other's throats in order to show that they don't get on with anyone (and yes, I'm aware that this description fits just about every Dickens novel there is). Here, Weston sees Denise's potential; Moray feels sorry for the wretched Katherine (don't think that traumatic past makes her husband a soft-soap villain option: his marital warfare is borderline Gothic) and Clara, who has back-story scars of her own, feels a certain affinity to Weston, even if she stops short of wanting to sleep with him. As mentioned, Moray plots with Fenton, and Jonas, the one-armed intrigue-spinner who's sometimes a villain surrogate, sometimes a villain for real, plots confusedly with just about everyone. All in all, very enjoyable.

But, it has to be said, Mr Selfridge (which I see I'll have to save for a later post) is still better. And it's not as if I've actually fallen for Weston of Fenton. It's just nice when someone makes the effort to please the villain-loving part of the audience. Do try, try and try again, dear costume-drama makers. After all, Downton will finish one day, and then we will need replacement therapy more than ever - both on the story-telling and on the villain front.