This Wonderful Commercial Machine: Gender, Class, and The Pleasures and Spectacle of Shopping in The Paradise and Mr Selfridge

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


    Splendour, opulence and meticulous attention to period detail has been a defining feature of the British costume drama. Indeed, such focus on the visual delights of the past has encouraged some commentators to dismiss the productions as frivolous entertainment that denies the narratives opportunity to make any serious social or political comment. Andrew Higson, engaging with the ‘heritage debate’, which explored the tension between the spectacle and the substance of the predominantly cinematic period adaptations in the 1980s and early 1990s, criticised the ‘conservationist desire for authenticity’ at the expense of preserving the irony or satire of the original texts (in particular the works of E.M. Forster). This approach to the period drama persists and has characterised responses to the recent BBC and ITV productions, The Paradise (2012-) and Mr Selfridge (2013-). Michael Hogan, in his two star review of the series finale of The Paradise, described the programme as a ‘period soap’ with ‘mid-market tweeness’. He concluded that “The Paradise blew its budget on fancy packaging and forgot about the product”. Similarly, Lara Prendergast, in a marginally better two-and-a-half star review of the final episode of Mr Selfridge, noted: “If the next series wants to keep viewers hooked, it must offer something more subtle than sumptuous window displays”. However, what both reviewers overlook is the fact that these two programmes, and the books on which they are based , are about spectacle and seduction. Unlike heritage cinema, these productions deliberately revel in the pleasures of consumerism and invite the viewer to experience the wonders of the grand department store. But, just as it is questionable that the earlier period adaptations sacrificed any serious intent for style, it is remiss to claim that these more recent productions are simply vacuous ocular treats. Fundamentally, spectacle and shopping are intrinsically bound up with gender representations, class structures and social change, and the retail environment provides a fascinating alternative to the more common country house settings. This chapter will explore these relationships, as well as addressing the specific viewing pleasures on offer via the resplendent halls of the department store. In particular, the role and representation of women, and their association with consumerism and commodification will be examined. The two series will also be discussed in relation to their closest predecessor, The House of Elliot (1991-4). While earlier programme focused on the developing couture business of two independent women, the more recent productions centre on the rise of two ambitious men determined to revolutionise the British shopping experience. Accordingly, The House of Elliot, seems domestic and genteel, while The Paradise and Mr Selfridge are public and exhibitionist. Ultimately, the two recent series are seductive and sensational, and, although familiar in some respects, invigorate the costume production by making shopping and its attendant pleasures the main attraction.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationUpstairs and Downstairs: British Costume Drama Television from The Forsyte Saga to Downton Abbey
    EditorsJ. Leggott, J.A. Taddeo
    Place of PublicationLanham, Boulder, New York, London
    PublisherRowman and Littlefield
    ISBN (Print)978-1-4422-4482-5
    Publication statusPublished - 16 Dec 2014


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