Christmas is over now and after buying present for all your nearest and dearest then hitting the sales to pick up the latest bargains the last thing you really want is to watch a drama about shops. That’s a bit unfortunate then as tonight ITV1 air the first episode of their new period drama Mr Selfridge a series set around the creation of the famous London department store. The series, adapted by Andrew Davies, stars Jeremy Piven as Harry Selfridge an entrepreneur who believes that English stores are behind the times and attempts to revitalise them by opening his own shop. However, as this first episode depicts, things didn’t run that smoothly for Selfridge as he loses an investor and struggles to remain faithful to his wife.
The opening scene takes part in 1909 where Mr Selfridge is sweeping through his newly constructed store waiting for the general public to enter for the first time. We then flashback a year as Selfridge comes to London and experiences the old-fashioned nature of the current London department stores. While at one department store Selfridge encounters shop girl Agnes, played by Aisling Loftus, who convinces to show him all of the gloves in her department but is later thrown out of the shop when he tells the floor walker that he is only browsing. Selfridge then takes it upon himself to build a store on Oxford Street however his bombastic nature doesn’t go down well with his business partner Mr Waring who pulls out of the venture after Selfridge goes back on all of their agreements. Despite not having a business partner or much money Selfridge still goes ahead with his plans and starts hiring staff while at the same time he invites his family over to England to stay in an extravagant house. Selfridge then uses his friendship with journalist Frank Edwards to find a new investor and in turn Frank introduces him to Lady Mae an influential woman with a sharp tongue. Mae secures Selfridge a new investor however in turn she wants a favour from him that she can use at any time and for the first time Selfridge feels like he’s being manipulated. However with his new money Selfridge is able to create his store and also hire notorious showgirl Ellen Love to be the face of Selfridges. However Selfridge’s relationship with Love might not be just a professional one as we see him neglect his family to attend more of her shows.
Running alongside Selfridge’s story is the fictional plot involving Agnes who, after the incident with Selfridge, is let go by her employer without a reference. Agnes then struggles to find a job and struggles to pay the rent and support her somewhat unstable brother George. When Agnes hears about Selfridge’s new shop she goes to his house and tells him her tale and when he realises it’s his fault that she is without a job he sorts her out an interview. Though initially she is cast out for having no references her prior relationship with Selfridge eventually sees her get a position as a senior sales assistant in the Accessories Department. Selfridge’s influence comes at a cost though as she is treated with suspicion by her supervisor Miss Mardle while the other girls in the department are also wary of her. As the story goes on it appears as if Agnes may have other talents after she assists window dresser Henri Leclair with Selfridge and Co.’s first ever display. Agnes may also have found romance in her new job when she is charmed by Victor, one of the waiters at the store’s restaurant; however she changes her opinion of him when he gets into a fist fight with her brother. Even though Agnes may have found work problems at home may impact on her job and her budding artistic career.
Anybody who’s seen one of Andrew Davies’ productions before knows he doesn’t do things by halves and from Pride and Prejudice to Little Dorrit his adaptations have always been grand affairs. Mr Selfridge is no exception and may be his most theatrical piece to date due to the extraordinary production design as well as the over-the-top performances. To me it is this production design that really makes Mr Selfridge stand-out from the elaborate houses of the rich to the smoky underground scenes everything is beautifully drawn. The biggest spectacle though is the recreation of the original Selfridge store which the production team tried to make as accurate as possible. Every time you are taken into the store you are instantly taken aback to how real it appears and in a way this distracts you from the story. Davies’ script, which is adapted from Lindy Woodhead’s ‘Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge, is fairly formulaic but makes sure we aren’t bored by introducing a cavalcade of characters and a myriad of stories. Though it is the central storyline, I personally found the forming of Selfridge’s itself a little dull and in addition I didn’t think Harry was a particularly likeable character apart from in the scenes in which he starts to doubt himself. Instead I found myself drawn to Agnes’ various stories from her erratic brother to her ambitions to better herself and to me it is clear that Davies created this story as he felt Selfridge may not have been everybody’s cup of tea.
In terms of the performances I found Jeremy Piven a little over-the-top occasionally tipping into annoying territory however there is something likeable about the actor which makes him hard to detest for long. Aisling Loftus, most recently seen in Good Cop, is brilliant as Agnes and is able to make her seem more than just the clichéd working class shop girl. Former Coronation Street actress Katherine Kelly also excels as playing the manipulative Lady Mae who may well prove Selfridge’s downfall in later episodes. I also found there was excellent support from Amanda Abbington, Ron Cook, Tom Goodman-Hill and Pippa Haywood. On the downside I felt Frances O’Connor was wasted as Selfridge’s wife while Zoe Tapper’s Ellen Love lapsed into caricature.
Overall there was much to like about Mr Selfridge, which is a much more traditional period drama than its BBC rival Ripper Street, including Davies’ script and the elaborate production design. Though Piven’s performance may be a little over-the-top I’m hoping over time he’ll settle down and make Selfridge a little more likeable. The only problem Mr Selfridge may face is that people really don’t want to watch a drama about shops after spending most of December buying presents for their loved ones. However I think that if you enjoy traditional period drama that is beautifully drawn then allow yourself to be swept up with Mr Selfridge and ignore the fact that it is largely set in one of the country’s most famous department stores.
Did you enjoy Mr Selfridge? Did you think it was a little over-the-top? Leave Your Comments Below.