thu 27/11/2014

Mr Selfridge, ITV1 | TV reviews, news & interviews

Mr Selfridge, ITV1

One man's chutzpah changes the face of British shopping in Andrew Davies' lavish, fast-moving drama

It all starts and stops with one man: Jeremy Piven as Harry Gordon Selfridge

Welcome to the marble halls of Mr Selfridge. All the world, in ITV’s new costumer (in every sense), isn’t a stage - it’s a shop. And bestriding his eponymous Oxford Street emporium, which we saw in this first episode in the run-up to its 1909 grand opening, like a colossus is Jeremy Piven as Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American who came from his native Chicago to open the world’s finest department store of its time.

Selfridge had already made a fortune at home, but chose London for his project of a lifetime. But even the best business plans go astray - literally here, when a first business partner withdraws - while the nuances of English society that he’s seeking to both serve and immerse himself in prove no less challenging than the retail venture itself.

The fall of Selfridge, through his womanising and gambling, should be as gripping as his rise looks meteoric

Overloud, you might say, oversexed (though so far we have only appetisers) and over here, Andrew Davies’s latest creation adapts Lindy Woodhead’s biography Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge into a 10-parter that’s drawn advance comparisons with the BBC’s Victorian The Paradise, and with the nuances of the class system of ITV’s own Downton Abbey. Mr Selfridge outdoes the former purely in scale - the Oxford Street shop’s accessories department has more than “6,000 separate articles of merchandise”. As for Downton, it looks a thing of the past when vertical movement, both in wider society and at Selfridge’s in particular, is now by lift - and there’s an American in charge, to boot.

For the flamboyant Selfridge, publicity is oxygen (“it’s a shop, not an exhibition” is the typical fusty British response). His guide is Frank Edwards (Samuel West) of the London Evening News. Edwards is equally at home backstage at the Theatre Royal with London’s most glamorous variety star Ellen Love (Zoe Tapper), and in the salon of Lady Mae (Katherine Kelly, late of Coronation Street) whose beauty has taken her from the stage into an aristocratic marriage.

Selfridge feasts on Love as the spirit of the age, and future “face” of his emporium - though their involvement will soon become much more intimate - while his impromptu alliance-of-convenience with Lady Mae swiftly brings in the badly needed new investor. Kelly’s character, glorious in her array of hats, may steal part of the show here, but there’s a complexity to her that could come out of a Henry James or Edith Wharton novel (pictured above right: Selfridge's women, clockwise from left: Lady Mae, Rose Selfridge, Agnes Towler, Ellen Love).

All that’s even before Selfridge’s family, his wife Rose (Frances O’Connor) and their children, as well as his mother Lois (Kika Markham), arrive at the grand London mansion that he’s taken. Rose is quieter, more withdrawn than her husband, less able or willing to expand into his growing social circle, which leaves her increasingly alone at home. Something, we know, is going to be tested soon in their clearly loving marriage.

The last female in the web spun so far around Selfridge is shop girl Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus, pictured left on the right), whom he encounters in the very first scene at the glove counter of a typical English shop where everything is hidden away - and his perceived effrontery in asking for it all to be shown to him duly earns Agnes the sack.

Considering that Agnes came into the show with a brother who’s not quite there, and they’re being pursued by their reprobate father, and she’s already gained a suitor in the form of a cheeky waiter from the restaurant upstairs, Davies has some deft weaving to do to keep the story’s supporting strands twisting along (luckily the action moves with the speed of its subject, a man who doesn’t like to sit down). What he does with Harry Selfridge’s life itself, with its later fall through womanising and gambling as mesmerising as his rise is meteoric, is going to make, or break, the series. Piven’s best known from his role as Hollywood agent Ari Gold in HBO’s Entourage, and we’re already looking for cracks in Selfridge’s damn-the-rest-of-them bravado. If Piven gets to portray the man coming apart as well as he’s shown us the shop coming together, the prizes should be his for the taking.

Episode one’s final scene had Selfridge at closing of day one (nice to think store owners once went home on foot rather than by helicopter), with his long-suffering head of finance Mr Crabb (Ron Cook), the man who’s had to keep all those extravagant promises somehow anchored to the ledgers. Selfridge says it’s been a success - “as a spectacle,” Crabb counters sniffily, hinting that takings may not have matched the hype. Spectacle, “making shopping thrilling”, was just what Harry Selfridge was after. ITV looks sure to achieve plenty of spectacle here - and, I suspect, it’ll be in on the money, too.

It's nice to think there was a time when store proprietors went home on foot rather than by helicopter

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