Once upon a time (not so long ago) the BBC and ITV had the same thought – why not stage a drama charting the development of the department store? Shopping and seduction, all wrapped up in an aesthetically pleasing bundle of timely period drama. Last year BBC1 viewers were treated to The Paradise, set in northern England and showcasing the entrepreneurial flair of businessman John Moray and his luxurious repertoire of desirable goods. Tonight ITV responded with Mr Selfridge, starring Jeremy Piven (that bloke off Entourage) as Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American retail pioneer who founded the iconic Oxford Street institution.
Set in London in 1909, it added a dash of urban razzmatazz to turn-of-the-century shopping. Whereas The Paradise’s innovations are met with rural conceit, the intrigue and press speculation referenced in the build-up to Selfridge’s grand opening brought an added buzz to the drama. Piven’s Mr Selfridge is a man who trades in grand speeches and sweeping gestures – a businessman whose exterior bravado is constantly in conflict with his interior self-doubt. The withdrawal of his investors in the opening scenes prompts a frenzied spending spree but the man behind closed doors betrays his anxiety – never more so than when in the company of his chosen face of Selfridge’s, Ellen Love.
Zoe Tapper’s portrayal of Love bears resemblance to the modern day cult of celebrity – the glamorous showgirl swathed in luxurious fabrics, embodying the glamour of early twentieth century society. Her dreams of swapping the London stage for superstardom echo Harry’s rags to riches backstory, revealed when he shares his fears of failure with his mother, Lois. Indeed, in bringing his brand of retail to British shores, Mr Selfridge’s American Dream spreads among his employees, who desire the success and wealth he has enjoyed.
But while to an extent their earnestness is endearing, at times it detracts from the realism of the story – yes, the turn of the century marked the beginning of female emancipation but young shop girl Agnes Towler’s aspirations of becoming a window dresser teeter dangerously close to corny. That isn’t to say that Aisling Loftus’s portrayal was poor – to the contrary, her fragile yet feisty resolve to provide for her broken family installs her as an endearing character with exciting emotional layering.
Katherine Kelly – dressed to the nines and a million miles away from Coronation Street’s Becky McDonald – is another one to watch. Her minxy, mysterious turn as wealthy socialite Lady Mae Loxley proves that contrary to Harry’s ascent of the American social ladder, in London it isn’t what you know but who you know. And while the show makes a meal of creating intrigue through Selfridge’s beleaguered finances, it is Lady Mae’s threatening claim as the store’s “saviour” that feeds the plot tension necessary for sustaining the show’s viewing figures. To put it bluntly, Katherine Kelly saves Jeremy Piven’s bacon. Mr Selfridge may market himself as the saviour of women but in this drama it’s the supporting female cast who come to his rescue.
Of course, there’s a welcome introduction of eye candy in the former of Tapper’s Love and tall, dark and handsome Frenchman Henri Leclair – the store’s innovative creative director. But what about the visual opulence of a store known worldwide for its innovative merchandising? BBC’s The Paradise can take credit for its shameless proliferation of luxurious goods at every opportunity – but in Mr Selfridge the opportunity to delight viewers with stunning sets and sumptuous window displays packed full of desirable products was not exploited to full advantage. Granted the best may be yet to come, but a fanciful Sunday night drama should serve up a welcome dollop of aesthetic escapism – something that until the (eventual) grand opening, I found to be frequently lacking.
Mr Selfridge’s opening episode felt akin to a prologue – a necessary prelude to what may well be another enormously successful period drama. But after the first scenes offered a glimpse of the store’s grand opening, the mishap-ridden build up was left veering into tedium. The trail for next week’s follow-up promises some flavoursome developments – including the arrival of an airplane in-store – but Mr Selfridge will have to make more attempts to capture my imagination to hold my attention throughtout the series.