What a time it's been. An alarming time of horror, strangeness and dread. Daily the bad news comes, drop by drop, of death and horror.Escapism is called for, and a perfect example of worthwhile escapism is on the horizon for this weekend. It's a frock opera with layers of intrigue about lies, betrayal, murder and more betrayal. It's a rich tale to bite into. Mostly, it's about fashion and frocks.
The Collection (Sunday, PBS Masterpiece, 10 p.m.) is set in the Paris fashion world and opens in 1947. France is free from German occupation and dealing with collaborators. Paris is filled with designers who want the city to return to its status as fashion capital of the world. There's a lot at stake – beauty, money, love and adoration.
Written by Oliver Goldstick, who was a producer on Ugly Betty and Pretty Little Liars, the series was made for Amazon Prime in Britain and now turns up on PBS because it has that feel of a very British period-piece drama that is lush, gripping and undemanding. Mainly, the focus is on postwar Paris and the personal and professional worlds of Paul Sabine (Richard Coyle), a designer who is seen as the figure who will revitalize French fashion and become very, very rich.
But Paul and his family have secrets. Who doesn't after the war? To begin with, Paul's main problem is his brother, Claude (Tom Riley). Claude is the true creative force, designing startlingly beautiful dresses that Paul passes off to the public and clients as his own. There's a problem with Claude, you see – he's gay and a boozer who disappears into the demimonde for days and returns beaten and bruised after too many one-night stands.
That's one major secret and Paul's mother (played with great, grand-dame menace by Frances de la Tour) is anxious that it stays safely hidden as the fashion industry starts to revive. Paul's wife, Helen (Mamie Gummer), is deeply suspicious of what Paul and his mom are doing but, for the most part, is happy to wear gorgeous dresses and dance at grand parties.
Into this scenario stride two American journalists, working on a big feature about the return of Paris couture fashion. The grumpy older American (Stanley Townsend) is more interested in finding stories about collaborators and smells a rat in the fashion house of Sabine. The wide-eyed young photographer Billy (Max Deacon) is stunned by Paris and all the beautiful young women and the clothes. It's through his eyes that we see the couture world – the seamstresses and needlesmiths, the models and well-off customers.
Billy is particularly smitten with Nina (Jenna Thiam from The Returned), a great beauty who works for Sabine. Nina has her own secrets, as does everybody in this strange world where beauty and brutal reality collide, and has just returned from a mysterious stay in Belgium. Her mother (the wonderful Irene Jacob, best known for the movie Three Colours: Red) is fiercely protective of her and resentful of any intrusion into the tight mother-daughter relationship.
The key point in the first episode comes when Billy persuades Nina to model a dress for him in the empty Sabine atelier at night. Everything ceases when this stunning dress is unveiled and that is a vital element of The Collection. Clearly, enormous amounts of money were spent on the clothes and, for all the secrets being held and the betrayals that unfold, the drama stops often to worship at the altar of high French fashion.
Sometimes, of course, the series descends into bizarre contrivances, if not outright silliness. Many of the characters speak in broad English accents, supporting French characters speak in French-accented English and the Americans are very American. One longs for more development of certain characters, especially Madame Stutter (Sarah Parish from Broadchurch), one of Sabine's few devoted customers, a rich, multidivorced woman restless for the thrill of wearing the designer's new creations. Sometimes when she stands like a statue dressed in a stunning frock, it takes your breath away. As it was meant to do.
What makes the eight-episode The Collection ideal escapism is its devotion to serious glamour and understanding of the allure of refined style. Its main theme is fashion rescuing France from the trauma of war. Throw in the secrets and betrayals and dark hints about a dead body buried somewhere, and you have the perfect circumvention of the present, this alarming time of horror, strangeness and dread.
The Loch (CBC, 9 p.m.), a British murder-mystery series, was not available in advance for review. Apparently, it is set in the Loch Ness region and there's a murder. The-no-nonsense cop is played by Siobhan Finneran, from Happy Valley and Downton Abbey. One review in Britain called it, "The sort of drama British broadcasters brew up on autopilot." And they do that because there's an appetite for it.