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Mary Queen of Shops

Nicola Mostyn enjoys a little shop of horrors prior to the TV series landing in Chorlton

Published on June 16th 2008.

Mary Queen of Shops

When it comes to TV, I love a character who is completely deluded. You know, the type who wouldn’t see the real picture if it were fired at them from a cannon.

The sane and patient viewer assumes that, while these shop-owners might have been stuck in a rut until now, they will surely see the error of their ways once the unarguably sensible Mary points out that they haven’t had a customer since 1973.

Reality TV shows are wonderful for this kind of thing. Recall, if you will, that episode of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares in which a puffed up American called Sebastian managed to sabotage his Italian restaurant, trading in a lucrative LA postcode, with his self-devised ‘concept’ menu – the concept being that it was so complicated you had to book a week before you wanted to eat to work out what you wanted.

It was fun to watch Ramsay’s troll-like yet oddly appealing face turn from anticipatory-pink to frustrated-puce through to pure, angry white as the wise guy rebuffed his advice (to make decent food), and insisted that, given the sheer genius of his ‘concept’, there was no harm in him serving frozen mash or not knowing one end of a pizza from the other. Great fun.

Mary Queen of Shops delivers more of this wrong-headed stoicism, albeit in the UK where we are (slightly) less crazy. Back for a second series, the idea is that Mary Portas, a straight-talking brand and retail specialist who once transformed the fortunes of Harvey Nichols no less, visits dusty, deserted boutiques across the UK and tries to persuade them that, judging by the dead flies on the window sill and the waft of bankruptcy in the air, selling loon pants is no longer a viable sartorial option.

The sane and patient viewer assumes that, while these shop-owners might have been stuck in a rut until now, nostalgically attached to flogging tie-dyed vest tops and crocheted underpants, they will surely see the error of their ways once the unarguably sensible Mary points out that they haven’t had a customer since 1973.

Happily not. Generally, when faced with the truth, they get indignant, then sniffy, then insulted, then enraged, their self-delusion locked in a celebrity death match with logic usually coming a poor second. Again, much fun.

Last week Mary visited a shop selling clothes for the fuller figure. Nothing unusual there except that the shop owner was – unusually, for someone of this career choice – a bit of a fattist.

I was particularly interested in this, because a new larger ladies shop recently opened in Chorlton. It seemed a quaint move in an area where every new premises is a bar, and I am yet to see anyone walk out or in of Lady Bountiful. I expected it to close down within days, and was not surprised, a week after its grand opening, to see news of a half price sale. But no, still it trades on. Or, I assume it does. Perhaps via a series of underground tunnels leading directly from Weightwatchers.

Anyway, back to the point, which is that, since being made to feel ashamed of being fat is the last thing a person wants to experience in such a store (except for compulsory aerobics. Or salad), Blinkz in Ascot was not doing awfully well. And so Mary set about trying to persuade proprietor Amanda that women above size 14 should not be automatically allocated a sackcloth and paper bag.

Then, last night, it was the turn of Kelvin, a Cardiff boutique owner who sells piles of cheap tat and thinks he’s right about everything, which is exactly the sort of subject we want: belligerent, pig-headed and, crucially, very wrong. Could they not have brought Ramsay in while he was cooking dinner, make it a special?

Apart from the amusement value, the reason I’m brining this series to your attention is that next week, guess where Mary is going to be? Chorlton!

No, not at Lady Bountiful (though there’s always room for that in Series 3) but H T Burt Men’s Store, known previously to me as that strange shop on the corner that sells the bow ties.

Apparently the business has been in Adrian Burt's family for 112 years but under his leadership, takings are going down faster than a pair of red braces, the old-fashioned stock apparently not selling well in the increasingly hip suburb. And so it’s Mary- and GQ’s Dylan Jones – to the rescue. Presumably they did the trick, since to my knowledge, Burt’s has not yet been replaced by a tequila bar, but I can’t say I’ve noticed the difference. We’ll have to tune in next week to see how and indeed, if, Mary transformed this shop-out-of-time.

Fingers crossed Burt dug his heels in and is now selling pantaloons.

Mary Queen of Shops, Monday, 9pm, BBC2

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Stephen NewtonJune 16th 2008.

Wasn't H T Burt done in the first series? Tonight the BBC2 website has her in Cardiff.

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