BBC banks on audiences returning to The Paradise

Victorian saga's second series to be followed by ITV's Downton Abbey on Sunday nights, creating two-hour period drama slot

Sunday night is traditionally period drama night, but from this weekend television viewers may be in danger of overdosing on the corsets and candelabras.

BBC1's hit Victorian love story The Paradise is returning on Sunday night for a second series meaning that, with Downton Abbey following it straight afterwards on ITV, there will be two-hours of historical costume drama for fans to feast upon.

Although The Paradise, which begins at 8pm, is set in a department store, it has echoes of ITV's Downton Abbey, with its story of love crossing social divides and sumptuous costumes and set.

But will a double bill of nostalgic wallowing be too much for audiences?

BBC's head of in-house drama, Kate Harwood, who also oversaw the award-winning period drama and Sunday night stalwart Lark Rise to Candleford, thinks not. "In my experience, fans of period drama can't get enough of it. We have a long tradition of Sunday night dramas [at the BBC] with series such as Lark Rise," she said.

Sunday has become a traditional home for period drama. Harwood suggests it provides "a last pause before the week begins and it can take you out of thinking what is going to hit you the next morning", which perhaps explains the furore that greeted the rape storyline that was recently introduced into Downton Abbey.

More than 200 of the series' 9 million viewers complained to regulator Ofcom after a visiting valet raped ladies' maid Anna May Bates. Many felt unprepared for an incident of such harsh reality to impinge on their cosy Sunday night's viewing.

The Paradise – which follows the fortunes of Denise Lovett, played by Joanna Vanderham, and the charismatic owner of The Paradise department store John Moray – will not feature such a controversial plotline. Harwood said: "The big upset this season is that Katherine, who was jilted by Moray, comes back with a husband, played by the brilliant Ben Daniels."

The Paradise is set in England's first department store and adapted from a novel by Emile Zola. The first series aired last year and was watched by around 5.5 million people.

As Radio Times editor Ben Preston pointed out, the BBC may be "gambling on people having had too much period drama" since on BBC1 The Paradise will be followed at 9pm with a modern crime drama, By Any Means. Starring Luther's Warren Brown and Shelley Conn from Mistresses, it will provide viewers who have had enough of the white ties and waistcoats on Downton Abbey with an alternative.

Preston said, however, that even costume drama is moving with the times, pointing out that Downton Abbey is now set in the 1920s and other periods are being mined in dramas such as BBC1's Call the Midwife, which is set in the 1950s. Preston said: "There's been a revolution in period drama in the last five years, it's moved out of the nineteenth century into the early twentieth so that's a big change, for two decades it's been bodices and bonnets."

He added: "But I think there's a renaissance in drama generally at the moment. Broadcasters have got the confidence to give dramas longer runs instead of one or two episodes, you now get six, seven or eight episodes so they can now establish characters with viewers. That's what makes the best drama, never mind if they are dressed in bonnets, jodhpurs or sharp sixties suits."

As well as being a crowd-pleaser in the UK, period drama is making serious money for producers abroad.

Downton Abbey is the most successful drama of all time, according to its makers Carnival and parent company NBC Universal.

It has been sold to 220 territories around the world, ranging from Iceland to the Vatican City, and unusually for a period drama has inspired its own merchandising range that includes scented candles and Downton Abbey roses.

Broadcasters are banking on more costume dramas. ITV has recently begun a 60s medical series called Breathless and at Christmas the BBC will show PD James's sequel to Pride and Prejudice, Death Comes to Pemberley.

Harwood counters criticism that there is too much historical drama by pointing out: "I think people love stories from a different age. Even Dickens set his stories 40 years before he wrote them. Writing about a tangible past is always something writers like doing as it puts a frame around the story."

For those viewers who are not period drama fans, as Preston points out, there is always something alternative to watch on demand.


Tara Conlan

The GuardianTramp

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