I am poorly when I see the 1992 teleplay, Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris, nursing a cold. I am lying on my sofa with the TV on, drifting in and out of sleep. At one point, I wake up, and there are Angela Lansbury, Diana Rigg, and, wait, is that Fred from Corrie? Is this a fever dream? I find myself engaging with the story, and watching through to the end. On occasion, I mention it to friends, but nobody has ever heard of it. They look at me sceptically. I let it go…
So I’m weirdly excited about this latest iteration of the tale, which I now know is based on a novel by Paul Gallico. Lesley Manville stars as the titular Mrs Harris (her ‘H’ restored), with Isabelle Huppert and Jason Isaacs as the big name support.
It’s London, 1957. Ada Harris knows in her heart that she’s a war widow, but she’s been waiting years for Eddie’s death to be confirmed. In the meantime, she’s working as a charwoman, cleaning up after a succession of indolent rich folk. She’s not unhappy exactly: she has a busy social life, drinking, dancing and ‘going to the dogs’ with her friends, Violet (Ellen Thomas) and Archie (Isaacs). But something is missing and, when Ada catches a glimpse of an exquisite couture gown in Lady Dant (Anna Chancellor)’s bedroom, she realises exactly what that missing something is…
A posh frock from Paris is beyond Mrs Harris’s slender means, but she’s a determined woman, and sets to with admirable grit, making savings wherever she can. Take the bus to work? No, not when she can walk. And what does she need with evenings out? Better to spend the time altering and repairing people’s clothes, bringing in a few extra shillings. Despite her hard work, however, that Dior dress is still way out of reach.
Until a series of fortunate events occurs, and – of course – she’s off to Paris! (Come on, that’s hardly a spoiler; it’s literally in the title.) The streets of the French capital appear to be paved with litter (there’s a bin strike, which we citizens of Edinburgh can certainly relate to), but Ada rises easily above the stink. She’s having the time of her life, and – with the help of André (Lucas Bravo), Natasha (Alba Baptista) and the dashing Marquis de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson) – she’s rediscovering her mojo. Sure, Mme Colbert (Huppert) is a bit sneery, and Mme Avallon (Guilaine Londez) seems to view her as an enemy, but so what? A couture gown is on its way; what could possibly go wrong?
Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is essentially a fairytale, although it’s not very grim. It’s a frothy concoction, signifying little, but it’s eminently watchable, with warm, engaging characters, and a satisfying (if predictable) story arc. Under Anthony Fabian’s direction, this primarily Hungarian production (no, I don’t know why either) is beautifully shot, and Felix Wiedemann’s cinematography really captures the ethereal beauty of the clothes, so vital to the tale. It’s refreshing to see a love story that doesn’t patronise an older woman, and I’m pleased that the ‘fish out of water’ stuff is played down. Ada is independent: she has lived alone through a war and is used to city life, and she mixes with all kinds. It’s no surprise that she can hold her own in a Parisian restaurant, nor that she’s unfazed by the unfamiliar etiquette of a Dior fashion show. Perhaps the most important theme is one of societal change: just as the political elite in Paris have to accept that the workers won’t settle for poverty wages any more, neither will Ada continue to put up with late payments and disrespect from her employers. The war was a real turning point, and its longterm implications are starting to be felt.
I don’t really know how this compares to the teleplay, because I wasn’t fully compos mentis when I was watching that, but I do know that it’s more enjoyable to see Mrs Harris finding her dream dress when I’m not in a Lemsip fug. And at the cinema too, which is always better (true fact, no counter-arguments accepted).