Lark Rise to Paradise



A few years ago, feeling like I had watched every single British costume drama miniseries made since 1996, I embarked on a longer journey: Lark Rise to Candleford, a series which, at that point, was finished airing its four seasons. For those of you who are unfamiliar – and I imagine many of you are – Lark Rise to Candleford is based on Flora Thompson’s semi-autobiographical series of novels and is the story of Laura Timmins, a teenage girl who leaves the small Oxfordshire hamlet of Lark Rise for the neighboring market town of Candleford to assist her cousin, the capable postmistress Dorcas Lane (played by Julia Sawalha), as a letter carrier. Laura has difficulties reconciling her past as a poor – well, let’s say pastoral working class – girl with her new identity as an essential part of the bustling town’s economy. Over the course of the series, many other members of the two communities are introduced and developed in order to depict, in total, how both Lark Rise and Candleford are adapting to the changing landscape and rapid industrialization of the late nineteenth century.

When I first began watching the show, I was immediately charmed and comforted by its Cranford-like qualities: the eccentric characters, the easy humor, the quaint setting, and the earnest, wholesome life lessons embedded in every episode. However, after two and a half seasons, all of this became cloying and I took a long break. (I’ve just resumed watching the series almost two years after I started.) I think some of the reasons that Cranford worked so much better for me than Lark Rise to Candleford, besides its superior writing, is that the first series is five episodes and the “sequel”, which was certainly not as satisfying, is only two. Lark Rise to Candleford averages almost ten episodes per season. This leaves ample room for the viewer to become worn out by heavy-handedness, character quirks, earnestness, and that very particular English sense that things were better in the past.

This doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed watching the show. The break was necessary, but I’ve found that watching Lark Rise to Candleford is like snuggling up in bed with a nice cup of tea. I still get annoyed with little things here and there. One example I can think of is the character of Laura’s father, Robert Timmins, who is played by Brendan Coyle. (That’s Mr. Bates to all of you Downton Abbey fans out there.) He’s a skilled mason and as a dedicated socialist, is proudly working class. He takes any opportunity to comment on politics and the state of the English class system and sounds, often, like a poor George Orwell. (Yeah, I know that Orwell came later, but this is just an excuse for me to mention that I’ve read The Road to Wigan Pier and think everyone else should too.) He’s also just…too admirable and good.* It’s hard dealing with a character so one-dimensional over multiple seasons. I am finishing up the fourth season now and have found that I’m happy that Robert has been absent so far. (Coyle had already started working on Downton at that point, I believe.)
On the other hand, there are certain characters who have been a delight to watch grow over the course of the series. Laura (played by Olivia Hallinan), as the main character, has had an interesting journey from seeming child to young adult. Dorcas Lane’s coming to terms with being a single, professional woman in a patriarchal society has been similarly fascinating, though disappointing at times. However, I’ve particularly liked watching Minnie, Dorcas Lane’s housemaid, who first appears in season two. Minnie is a source of comic relief in a show that takes itself a little too seriously. She started out as a blundering know-nothing and, as of the middle of the fourth season, is becoming a mostly competent young woman who has managed to retain a sense of wonder and a palatable amount of silliness.
I’ve been watching another show, currently airing on PBS’s Masterpiece Theater, that reminds me a bit of Lark Rise to Candleford. First of all, The Paradise, which is for some reason based on Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames though it is set in a vague, nameless northern English city in the late nineteenth century, was created by Bill Gallagher, who also created Lark Rise. There’s a similar feel to the dialogue and it deals with many of the same broader themes, naturally, because it is about a rapidly changing society. The Paradise of the show’s name is a booming department store, where the show’s protagonist, Denise (played by Joanna Vanderham), begins working after her uncle denies her a position in his small drapery shop, conveniently located across the street. We don’t see much outside of the department store and the street that it’s on, aside from when characters venture to a local wealthy landowner’s estate, but one gets the sense that times are changing for the small, family businesses that the people of the city had frequented in the past.
The Paradise is certainly nothing special. It’s soapy, mindless entertainment, but it satisfies my sweet tooth (for costume dramas). There is just the right amount of romance, treachery and cheeky humor to keep me coming back each week, and I can’t help but watch it while I’m snuggled up in bed with a cup of tea in hand.
*If you want to see Coyle playing a really similar, but awesome, version of this character, watch North and South, a miniseries based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, which deals with industrialization and the idealization of the pastoral and the shifting British class system much more deftly.

Spiral v. Scandal

engrenages scandal

I talk about my Netflix-watching habits a lot on here. Probably more than I should. It’s not that I’m ashamed of what I watch on Netflix. It’s just that I think I could probably devote my energy to writing about things that matter. But, then again, Netflix is a thing that matters to me. I guess it shouldn’t matter me so much but whatever, I like watching things on TV in my spare time, so there. I have been watching two series recently: Spiral and Scandal. Spiral is kind of like French Law and Order – its French title is Engrenages – but with season-long story arcs and subtitles. Scandal is kind of like…ugh, you all know what Scandal is kind of like because you probably read the internet and also you probably have seen a Shonda Rhimes show before. Both of these shows are great for binge-watching.

I watched the entire first season of Spiral in one weekend. I swear, by the end of the weekend, my French comprehension was back where it had been when I was taking college French classes. (I’m not sure what this says about me or the Northwestern French department.) Anyway, Spiral is dark and gloomy and filled with the kind of wonderfully flawed characters that have made modern television so great. Police Captain Laure Berthaud shares much with a female law enforcement officer who is also one of my favorite television characters, Prime Suspect‘s Jane Tennison, played by Helen Mirren. Both are women who struggle to maintain power in a male-dominated field, while they barely keep their dysfunctional personal lives from reaching a state of complete disaster. However, you learn much less about Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) in the first season of Spiral than you do about Jane Tennison in the first season of Prime Suspect. Because the show isn’t entirely about Laure. It’s also about Assistant Prosecutor Pierre Clement (Gregory Fitoussi), whose story dominates most of the first season, as his personal life becomes entangled in the season’s main story, that of a murdered Romanian prostitute with high-ranking connections. Supporting characters on the police force and in the judicial system – Audrey Fleurot brilliantly plays a young, corrupt lawyer named Josephine Karlsson – are fully realized, and their individual motives take the first, and then the second, seasons to places I didn’t expect. But, the themes of the show and the stories told aren’t all that different from the police and legal dramas we’ve seen before, and there’s something about that familiarity that’s comforting. You know that even if the road to the end of the season is a winding one, they’ll probably catch the bad guys and everyone will learn some kind of lesson.

Watching Scandal gives me a different kind of satisfaction. Unlike Spiral, which not only boasts a comparatively complicated plot, but also requires one to read subtitles and figure out how the French legal system works, Scandal requires little attention paid in order to follow along. I watched the first season this winter, after hearing from several friends that  the show, in which Kerry Washington plays the #1 Washington fixer who is also having an affair with the president, is the best kind of soapy fun. I found that it was pretty much exactly how they described it. It is literally CRAZY, full of conspiracies and secret presidential sex and Kerry Washington wearing a series of beautiful white cashmere outfits. Women (and men, but I’m more fascinated by the women, I guess) struggle for power in the show, but the tone is such that these struggles are much less realistic and interesting than the character arcs of Spiral.

I started watching the second season of Scandal immediately after finishing the first, but stopped after one of the stories carried over from the first season was resolved. I recently picked up where I left off in an effort to catch up with the third season, which premiered a few weeks ago. I can report that, two-thirds into the second season, the show is still insane and satisfying in the same unchallenging manner and I really, really hope it doesn’t get as bonkers as Grey’s Anatomy did back in the day, with all of the ghost sex and runaway grooms. At this point, I’m invested but not sure that I’ll continue to be so into it that I will live tweet the show along with every other woman in America.

Two more seasons of Spiral await me on Netflix. I’ll probably wait a little bit before watching them. It’s not quite a thing here, not having reached the same level of fame as Borgen and Danish television, which has been the subject of trend pieces in the New Yorker and elsewhere. (I started watching Borgen this summer and then fell behind and wasn’t able to catch up, which I’m a bit sad about.) However, there was this New York Times article about French TV recently. I hope it inspires streaming services to start carrying more of these shows. I could see myself getting caught up in more foreign language television, especially if they make me feel like maybe I could speak better-than-terrible French again at some point in my life.