Tucked away in the depths of County Durham lies the Lambton Estate – a dilapidated castle uninhabited since the 1930s before it was reinvented by a BBC film crew as The Paradise – the materialistic masterpiece that was Britain’s first department store.
BBC’s latest period drama – based upon Emile Zola’s 1883 novel The Ladies’ Paradise – is set in urban northern England and follows the story of John Moray. An innovative businessman riding the nineteenth century wave of industrialisation by creating a one-stop shopping experience, the story follows the men and women he employs to live and work under his roof.
“Everyone lives here, everyone works here, everyone falls in and out of love here,” says Joanna Vanderham, who plays The Paradise newcomer Denise Lovett. “I think that turmoil – that boiling pot – is what will draw viewers in.”
Stepping onto the set’s shop floor one is greeted by a swell of opulence – lavish displays of everything from gloves to jewellery to glassware, designed to overwhelm the senses of The Paradise’s unsuspecting customers, not to mention BBC viewers.
In the words of actress Elaine Cassidy, who plays spoilt heiress Katherine Glendenning, “I walked in and thought, ‘I would love to shop here’ – it’s so beautiful.”
Beautiful, or for want of a better word, “blingy”. Everything in the store is designed to sparkle – from extravagant chandeliers bought online from Bulgaria to Indonesian silk-covered recliners sprayed gold to glisten in the light. And each room is tailored to its occupants. Set foot into ladies wear and you are met with a surge of feminine pastels, open the door to John Moray’s office and you get a sense of power – “a bit Godfathery” according to producer Simon Lewis. But down the road at struggling draper Edmund Lovett’s lodgings and it’s “a bling-free zone”, a dark and dingy contrast to the sumptuous consumerism found inside his rival, The Paradise.
Because that’s the appeal of what has come to be known as “the Downton effect” – an emergence of period dramas that whisk the viewer away from their present worries to a place of wealth and luxury. “I think it’s an escape for people,” says Joanna. “Life is really hard at the moment but when you watch a period drama you switch off from everyday life.”
Indeed, if you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, Lark Rise to Candleford and Upstairs Downstairs, you’re going to love this. “It’s a beautiful era to be part of – the late nineteenth century,” explains actor Emun Elliott (John Moray). “It was a time of progress and how you appeared was of huge importance.”
Think nineteenth century Sex and the City with an obsession with clothes and shopping, plus the all-important central love triangle...
Ah, yes, the love triangle. Where would a period drama be without a dash of restrained angst and unrequited love? This time it’s found in the rivalry between wealthy Katherine Glendenning (right) – the spoilt daughter of a local landowner – whose public courting of Mr Moray is called into question by his hidden affection for new shop assistant Denise Lovett, the wholesome beauty whose keen sense of business catches his eye.
The costumes say it all. Denise’s sleek black shop girl uniform may have “something sexy about it”, but Katherine represents the world of wealth and handmade seamstresses, with expensive fabrics and minute detailing. The costumes take you on a journey, explains Elaine. “It’s all those details – hair, makeup, materials used – that subconsciously makes something a better piece. It helps you to build and enhance your character.”
And don’t forget the corsets: “The underpinnings of god,” declares costume designer, Joanna Eatwell, who made a point of attaching coquettish bows to the backsides of her custom-made dresses. “All the emphasis was on the bustle – that’s the part of the body they were fetishing at this time. It’s all about the bottom...”
And if that isn’t enough to intrigue you, there’s star quality to be found in period drama veteran Sarah Lancashire as archetypal spinster and head of ladies wear, Miss Audrey. A stickler for tradition and knowing one’s place, she bristles at Denise’s audacious flare for selling and commerce. “She doesn’t have the vision for the job that Denise clearly has,” explains Lancashire. “Something which Miss Audrey doesn’t have is ambition, which Denise has in spadefuls”.
So there’s the young girl brimming with ambition at the bottom of the ladder, the ruthless businessman taking over the high street, the local tradesman struggling to make ends meet and the enamoured woman whose affections are tragically met with disappointment. This delightful Tuesday night indulgence of business and bling may masquerade as fanciful frivolity, but I challenge you not to find something that strikes a chord with modern day living.