The Paradise: Bringing the set to life

Tuesday 25 September 2012, 14:28

Hannah King Hannah King Researcher

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BBC One's new eight-part period drama The Paradise is based on the classic French novel Au Bonheur des Dames by Émile Zola.

Adapted by Bill Gallagher (Lark Rise To Candleford) and set in England's first department store in the 1870s, The Paradise is an intoxicating love story starring Sarah Lancashire, Joanna Vanderham, Elaine Cassidy, Matthew McNulty, David Hayman, Patrick Malahide and Emun Elliott.

As filming moved into its final stages I visited the set at Lambton Castle in County Durham and managed to steal a few moments with some of the team involved in creating the enchanting backdrop to the drama.

Production designer Melanie Allen and assistant art director Rebecca Mason talked to me about how they created the look of the series.

Melanie began our tour by explaining that there are three main types of props: specially made items, antiques bought mainly in auctions or hired and reproductions found in ordinary shops and wholesalers.

Apparently you can usually spot the antiques as they are unique - all varying in shape and colour.

Silver teapot


In contrast, where you have several identical pieces the repetition hints that they're probably reproduction items.

"Replicas give us the opportunity to repeat products and that's what you need in a department store," she explains.


"It's always a mixture," Melanie says, "so here we've got candlesticks that we bought from a supermarket mixed in with antiques on the shelf below."

Antique candlesticks


These glass dispensers came from a department store in America.

"Victoriana is quite large in America," Melanie explains, "so they make reproductions and sell them in the shops.

"The equivalent in department stores here are very plain and simple, so we had to get them imported."

Victorian looking glass dispensers


"When you're doing stuff for TV and film you've got to accept that 90% of what you do, if not more, just blends into the background," says Rebecca.

"You're trying to create things that add to the visual of the set without drawing attention to it.

"Lots of things are there to add the essential layers of detail, shape and colour in the background of the shop."

These wrapped empty boxes are examples of the 'deep background' props Rebecca is talking about - the secret to creating the impression of a fully stocked department store on a budget.

The boxes used on The Paradise set were all made in a box factory in Newcastle. As Melanie says, "It's all about the packaging."

Some of the labels were designed by the art department in period style. Originals from the period were also bought from historic label companies and replicated.


Company names used on the packaging are both real trading names from the period and ones invented by the production team.

Either way all the names need to be cleared for use according to copyright laws.

Copyright clearance can be got round by using clever wording that describes contents rather than a brand such as Finest Parisian Collars or even just Collars Ltd.


"The more expensive fabrics are on the rolls and they are literally wrapped once around foam," Melanie explains.

"Sometimes you have to say - it's going to cost too much, let's not stock that product."

Roll of green fabric


All the materials that appear must of course have been available at the time.

"We're lucky though," Melanie says, "all this stuff was around because the industrial revolution had already happened. That's one of the reasons why department stores evolved.

"You had the middle classes who suddenly had cash and could start spending and things were being reproduced so it was no longer a case of an individual craftsman making goods."

Bowler hat and top hat on stands


Everything in the department store had to look shiny and new but in Lovetts, the outdated rival store across the street, props had to feel like old stock with wear and tear, and had to be aged.

Melanie describes ageing as a real skill.

"Everyone has their own techniques. You take a new item, you spray it with dirty water, coffee or tea and in some cases, such as old boxes of stock, use sandpaper and a hammer to further wear them down."

Battered old silverware on show


Many items were sourced from modern day craftsmen with a brief on how they might have looked in the Victorian era.

"We might have used specialist television people if we'd been in London," says Melanie, "but because we're in County Durham we used a regular baker and a regular florist.

"People really enjoy doing it because it's different to their normal day job!"

They tried varnishing the bread to make it keep but it wasn't a great success.

Basket of breads


Finally, I asked Melanie what her and her team were most proud of.

"Everything's beautiful isn't it?" she says.

"It's the combination of everything together... When you add the repetition of items it stops it feeling like a museum or antiques centre.

"You totally know you're in a shop when you come in and that in itself was the greatest challenge that we've achieved."

Denise (Joanna Vanderham)


More on The Paradise
Watch the trailer.
Read Behind The Scenes In Paradise on the BBC College Of Production blog.

Hannah King is a researcher in BBC TV and iPlayer.

The Paradise begins on Tuesday, 25 September at 9pm on BBC One and BBC One HD. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Was it just us, or did everyone else have a fault with the Paradise last night? Our BBC 1 site froze 1/2 way through Holby...and that was that!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Instead of an article on sets bringing it to life, may I suggest that the actors and script be looked at and similarly treated? Watched episode one last night and it was utterly utterly dire. Script full of cliches, acting wooden, looked as if it was filmed in the back yard at BBC House and the pace funereail. A total turkey.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I disagree. I enjoyed it very much, and today at work (Hospital based) many are saying how much they enjoyed it also! This show had wonderful costumes, the actors settled quickly into their roles. It's not dark, not deep, but then it's not meant to be. I enjoyed the first episode, as did my pals, and we are all looking forward to the next episode. Roll on next Tuesday night...

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Quite agree with emasl. What a shame the same effort with the props wasn't put into the dialogue or acting. Totally unconvincing; laughable almost.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I was looking forward to seeing the latest BBC costume drama which the BBC have always done very well. However this latest effort was abysmal. The acting was appalling and the story line was a complete copy from Downton Abbey. I shall reluctantly watch the next episode but if things don't improve I shall not waste my time in future!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    "It's not dark, not deep, but then it's not meant to be"

    But this was based on a book by Zola which I read a couple of years ago. It was simply marvellous, great imagery and characterisation, set in Paris and based on the rise of the store Bonne Marche. OK it is 'loosely' based on the Zola but even that is too much emphasis on the connection which is practically nil. Radio Times called it Lark Rise with Shopping and that is it precisely. My heart sank when I read that but I determined to watch it and not rush to judgement too quickly. I stand by my above comment, it was DIRE and I will not be watching any more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Usually the BBC delivers especially with period dramas but i was disappointed with the Paradise. The set was too small, there was no depth to the characters, they were not realistic. It feels like its been churned out quickly due to the success of Downton Abbey. I will watch episode 2, and hope it improves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Having just watched this programme via catch up tv, I must say I was not impressed, it was all a bit cliche for me and some of the acting was over the top, I was not to taken with Moray he appeared to be of Spanish descent was this intentional ? such a shame, hope it improves, I will watch it tonight, fingers crossed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I was looking forward to this programme, but unfortunately it is dire. It seems to me to be directed and acted very like the awful new Upstairs Downstairs, which will hopefully never come back The music is on far too much during dialogue, becoming distracting and irritating. Actors are trying to do posh accents that sound ridiculous - very like the butler in the new Upstairs Downstairs. Again that becomes distracting. The characters have little depth and the acting is forced, partially because of the forced accents and the poorly written script. I ploughed through nearly 2 episodes, but I have given up - I can't take anymore, life is too short. What a terrible shame that the BBC, who has given us wonderful costume dramas before, should have come up with such dribble. I suspect the actors are capable of much better as I have seen some of them in some very good productions before. Compare Pride and Prejudice, that wonderful production in the 1990s to this - BBC, you need to sort this out. It's our licence fee that is paying for this - you need to do better. At the very least, please - I beg you - stop putting so much music over the dialogue - it really is infuriating.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I haven't read the novel and so approached this with a completely open mind. I for one, have enjoyed both episodes immensely. The harsh critics just seem to lack a little imagination and are simply unable to enjoy the production for what it is- a midweek costume drama with no other pretensions. The setting and costumes work well and simple concentration on the production for the hour will reveal quite a pleasant experience

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I watched "The Paradise" for the first time last night and I was immediately struck by the lavishness of the production. The sets are quite stunning and I can’t remember seeing better lighting on any BBC production. On my 42” screen the quality looked far better than many High definition productions I have seen in recent Months. My compliments to the Set designer, D.O.P. and Crew.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Love the program. Quite good for a mid week drama. My only critique is could the BBC not move it Wednesday, as there is absolutely nothing meaningful to watch on Wednesday nights. Its sure better that watching the cast of Watchdogs Whom have been found to be as guilty as the people on their program (It should be a 5pm show with a repeat on BBC4 @ such timing as 10.25pm)

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Mmm - Hardleft ...'the harsh critics seem to just lack imagination'. No, actually I have a lot of imagination, but I simply found it a very poor production - ie it did not entertain me and most of all, it was badly acted and pretentious - in my opinion. And why oh why do the BBC want to put music over so much dialogue (they are even doing it in the programme Watchdog, on which it is seriously annoying). The worst actor was the lead male actor - wooden, probably due to the stilted script. I didn't care about the characters. Downton is wonderful and relaxing to watch - I don't have to try and like it, I just do.

    'Lighting and set fantastic' - sorry, but in my opinion it is claustrophobic. If I didn't know better I would think that the comment at 13.44 by ThamesTV is by a BBC employee who works on the set and understands technical terms, but of course it isn't. I respect their view, but I certainly don't agree.

    Anyway, the comments about how bad the programme is will reduce or stop, because people like me will not be watching it any more! I am going to go out and be entertained at the cinema by a seriously sexy man - 007 in the new James Bond film. Daniel Craig - now there's a man to ogle!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I absolutely LOVEEEEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeee the offical music for The Pardise drama. It is divine. I would love to purchase it. Can anyone help please

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Just watched the 3rd episode and found it absolutely stunning
    Beautifully shot and edited. Set design that looks like it cost millions
    Story line that kept tugging at your heart with characters that keep growing
    Just brilliant. The BBC may have its problems but when it comes to drama they are repeatedly hitting the nail on the head

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    when watching a costume drama, i am not really looking for brilliant script, or content, or whatever, they are suppose to be light and entertaining, and BBC usually does a good job.

    the set is quite adequately busy, with a bit over-the-top details gushing everywhere, but then that was accurate too. However, i do feel that the costumes should be better than what i saw. It is really baffling why, of all characters, Miss Glendenning has to wear such bad costumes. other characters do not stand out as much but she is suppose to be rich and sophisticated. last night (9th Oct) i watched in horror some of the worst outfits i have ever seen in BBC production. the colours are more like 1960 Hollywood make-do replicas, the green and yellow outfit with that flower bag was like a bar girl in a bad western film. when sitting in the garden pouring her heart out to Peter Adler, the dangling "crystals" are so plastic, her necklace is just a lengh of lace with some plastic pearls sewn on. All these dresses are suppose to be hand made and far superior to ready-made garments, well they really do not stand much scrutiny. she is singularly the worse dressed female character, and we are always looking at her! There may be a lot of work in them, they are just tastelessly done. This affects her character, since she did say that she sits and thinks about dresses and they are "exquisite", and we are to think that on top of being of excellent taste, there is something else in her head, so bad outfits on her just menas that she really isn't much of a brilliant intellect of any substance. there is also a lot of fabrics (in set and in costume) that is recognisable from Chinese emporiums which are still being sold in Soho today, please look a bit further afield, these fabrics are modern, and they shout out loud from the production!
    May be i am too harsh, but PLEASE, some of that normal BBC elegance we are used to would be good.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    The sets are really very good! As a descendant of the owner of one of Britain's first department stores (Jolly's of Bath, est 1826, but became truly a department store in the 1830s, and retains many of its original architectural features to this day) I can see some of the influences, the peacock window for example. That looks like it was based on Jolly's trademark peacock motif. OK, we spotted some clearly polyester ribbon in the photos, but the sets are well done, the illusion holds.

    The gent's costumes are also very good. I'm a historical costumer and one of the things we DO is gents tailoring. They wander about a bit in period, and the ubiquitous anachronistic chinese brocade (clearly poly or rayon) appears once or twice, but those are nitpicks.

    Yes, the lighting is great. Which is a shame, because it picks up every detail of the ghastly costumes of the female leads.

    Don't get me wrong. The actual frocks are well done. They wander around a bit over the decade pre and post the date the film is set in, they will insist on wearing dinner dresses in the afternoon, and showing way too much cleavage, the actresses don't wear nearly enough underwear, so you can see the outlines of the corsets and even the boning under the frock, and the fabrics and construction are a bit flimsy, but all this should not spoil the average viewers pleasure. The cut is mostly OK, though the fit leaves something to be desired in some cases. This is probably a Clue!

    But then someone has "embellished" them.

    The embellishments usually clash horribly with the original frock, both in colour and in style. Cheap poly satin ribbon has been used, and made in china pre formed trim. The upholstery trims used are way too heavy, and Miss Glendennings friend wears a jacket trimmed with what are clearly curtain tie backs. And as for that horrible scarlet satin thing covered in pre-made bows that has been flung at the chest of quite a pretty gown in autumn colours, what were they thinking? See looks like she's been stabbed!

    And the crystals? Don't get me started. I suspect they began their life on a cheap plastic chandelier, and there they should have stayed.

    None of the wonderful origami of lovely self fabric trim which distinguishes this period. Just ghastly garish modern polyester. This is also a Clue.

    It looks to me as if what has happened is that the Beeb have raided the wardrobe department for "Victorian Stuff", then asked someone to bling them up a bit to make them look different from the gowns in the original productions. Unfortunately the person they asked seems to have been the apprentice. A colour-blind apprentice with a loyalty card for a shop selling cheap haberdashery and upholstery braid. With a budget of around a tenner per costume.

    I'm watching, for the story, and because it helps me imagine my ancestors in their elegant Bath Emporium.

    But honestly Aunty Beeb Could do better!

    PS I am available at very reasonable rates for future productions......

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.


    GreatestEmpress #14, to answer your question about the music used for The Paradise; it is an original score composed by Maurizio Malagnini.


    BBC TV blog

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Brilliant show. The highlight of my weeks viewing. Thank you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    What can I say except that for the first time some of my students begged me to study Zola's book in French class...!


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