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Ladies Skirts and Active Victorian Women: The Paradise

October 4, 2012

When watching the first episode of The Paradise, BBC One’s new, slightly humdrum Zola adaption (of Au Bonheur des Dames (1883); The Ladies’ Delight or The Ladies’ Paradise – it feels fancy when I write it in French) I noted on twitter how the tracking shot of a lady’s bustled skirts has become as much a convention of period drama as the establishing shot of the grand country seat. It immediately put me in mind of BBC Two’s masterful adaptation of Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (2011), which displayed a similar shot. The shot works to immediately signify the period – the bountiful fabric of the Victorian bustle – and each programme’s gendered focus, the female POV. Yet it also works to signify the nature of our heroine – she is walking through the streets, she is active, moving forwards. Yet the differences between these shots illustrate the diversity of British period drama. The gothic, fragmented at times expressionisticly oppressive Crimson Petal whose swooningly beautiful imagery is a world away from the softly light and bustling wide shots of the classically framed The Paradise. And with that skirt shot conjuring Crimson, in my mind the latter unfortunately pales in comparison.

Both programmes offer the standard aspirational proto-feminist heroine, following working class women in Victorian England whose intelligence marks them out as worth more than their current standing. Both ladies will service you, but in very different ways. Denise the shopgirl is a fount of retail ideas, coveting both The Paradise’s owner and his managerial position, whilst Sugar the prostitute scribbles a florid, bitter novel between clients and advises her client (and later lover) William on business matters.

Both also have professions which allow them active movement – distinct from the upper class women bound by society rules, daintily sipping tea in drawing rooms, or their rigidly controlled domestic servants. The department store setting of The Paradise allows us the relative rarity of Victorian working women who aren’t ‘working girls’. Serving the wealthy by day the shopgirls escape to spend their evenings dancing and drinking in the pub – though, notably our sensible, pure, sensible heroine Denise does not partake.

The Paradise opens with a tracking shot of a woman’s plain, slightly dingy skirts as she strides along a pavement. She moves, she is dynamic, she seems determined, she is notably alone, independent. The camera rises up to reveal our heroine Denise as she arrives onto a high street with her luggage, cementing us into her POV, the new arrival from the country. Earth tones dominate, browns and dingy creams, Denise is somewhat beige, with her blonde hair blending into the creamy browns of her outfit, the wan country girl (all the better to create contrast with the refined uniform she ends up in – see top image) the chipped dark facades of the  shops and pub signify our urban setting, but have seen better days. Denise then stops, entranced, and we cut to follow her gaze to The Paradise, revealed in a crane shot, the real star of the show. The bright creamy white facade and blue detail startling against drab brown surrounds. Dominating the space, a thing of beauty.

Whilst it showcases working class life, The Paradise‘s department store setting still allows its audience a pleasurable immersion in the aesthetics of past-ness. A temple to consumption inside which covetous beauty and opulence abound, reams of fabric shimmer, dainty gloves are cooed over, crystal and silver glisten as the camera tracks around and hovers on detail. Women dreamily describe the store as ‘a kind of heaven’, swooning along with the audience at home, the Sex in the City post-feminist pleasure in consumption read onto the Victorian age.

The Paradise‘s celebration of the coming of modern consumerism – care of the industrial revolution – appears as the contemporary British high street is in sharp decline and we carry out our transactions in anonymous virtual spaces rather than with attentive shop assistants. Whilst The Paradise threatens the business of small local shops (including Denise’s uncle’s), the store is distinguished from the faceless clone towns and supermarket sprawl of the 21st Century high street through its depiction as a community. One ruled by a benevolent manager a la Downton Abbey‘s Lord Crawley (though one who has worked his way up and married well, with the mysterious death of his wife giving him rakish intrigue for our heroine). It trades on the same cosy nostalgia that department store John Lewis cannily exploits in it branding of itself as a British institution. I like to view The Paradise as John Lewis’s origin story (Denise would be a dab hand at a whimsical xmas advert).

But whilst The Paradise‘s depiction of Victorian life through the frame of retail life offers something refreshingly different from the same old society courtship and intrigue (though there is plenty of this here, as the shop’s owner somewhat shadily romances the local banker’s daughter, enticing her and her high society friends into the store) and offers me a plucky, smart working class heroine, overall The Paradise fails to engage. It feels so utterly conventional. So Sunday night rote light costume drama (but on a Tuesday), so Lark Rise to Candleford (BBC One, 2008-11), Call the Midwife (BBC One, 2012-), Downton Abbey (ITV, 2011-). Like DowntonThe Paradise is as much a character as its human leads (oh that old chestnut) and whilst it doesn’t share Downton‘s conservative worldview it does share the same unadventurous reliance on wide shots of heritage splendor. It is as if the aesthetic dynamism of Bleak House never happened. Contrast the above focus on a lady’s skirts with similar moments from the opening sequence of Crimson Petal:

I could screen grab and discuss this forever, but I will save you from that. This skirt tails sequence is part of a fragmented, abstract opening to episode 1, where we glimpse bits and pieces of Sugar, here speed after her through the gothic, fearsome streets, nightmarish faces rearing into her POV. This aggressively asserts itself as not your Sunday night BBC One Victoriana and is the handiwork of Marc Munden, who also directed the  visually dynamic Vanity Fair (BBC Two, 1998) and Channel 4’s majestic civil war drama The Devils Whore (2008) and its Dutch master sidelight. His work is so luscious, so dense, you can almost taste and touch it – the physicality of Crimson Petal is strong, tactile; fabric, skin, bodily emissions. Sugar is an object of desire for men, but she is a survivor, thinks and moves fast, the tails of her jewel-like dress and its folds of fabric float above the mud as she stomps, we cannot catch her, she is not made for this world (later, when she is installed in her lover’s home as his nanny, she is still as a statue). We move to BBC Two, we move from period drama as romantic heritage splendor (perhaps I am slightly unfair, there is the wonder of North and South (BBC One, 2004) and its play with perspective, memory and that deathly white cotton snow) to period drama as dynamic postheritage sexuality.

Two skirt tails, two active (independent?) Victorian working class women, two BBC costume dramas. A change of channel makes a whole world of difference.

Image Credits:

1. BBC

2. BBC/Origin Pictures

3. Screengrabs from BBC iplayer

4. Screengrabs from DVD

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