It’s official: period drama is having a moment. Probably more surprising, however, is that ITV, traditionally relegated to talent shows and the odd re-run of Miss Marple, is dominating the market, far outshining the BBC with its offerings of Downton Abbey, Titanic and now Mr Selfridge.
The latter has been lauded as ‘Downton Abbey with tills’ and signals a new direction for ITV, being based on actual events and having been written by Andrew Davies, taking over from the indomitable Julian Fellowes (now much despised after that Christmas special).
The show explores the origins of Selfridge’s department store and the exploits of its larger than life founder, Harry Gordon Selfridge. Played by a charismatic Jeremy Piven of Entourage fame, Harry bounces across our screens with an almost unnatural quantity of energy and enthusiasm, choosing to run his business and personal life alike with a reckless abandonment that earned his real-life counterpart the nickname ‘Mile a Minute Harry’.
Fortunately for the pessimistic world-weary watching, the exuberant American is brought back from the brink of the irritatingly upbeat by the presence of the superbly acerbic Lady Mae Loxley. Ex-Coronation Street actress Katherine Kelly truly shines in the role of the devious aristocrat, cutting the gentlemen of her acquaintance down to size with a plethora of sarcastic observations that look set to rival the Dowager Duchess of Grantham’s.
Interestingly for a period drama, Lady Mae is the only upper-class member of the cast. Harry and his family are Americans, providing a refreshingly modern perspective on London society in the early twentieth century. There was certainly a wealth of inspiration for Davies to draw upon: from the budding women’s suffrage movement to the first cross-channel flight, Mr Selfridge captures the capital in a time of growing change and innovation.
However, for all its authenticity, you can’t help but detect a sense of falseness in Mr Selfridge. Perhaps it is Piven’s dazzlingly white teeth that beam with a wattage to rival Simon Cowell’s. Or maybe the fact that the intended ‘paradise’ of a shop is entirely decorated in a depressingly-bland brown hue which even Piven’s mega-watt smile fails to brighten. The bustling of funeral-clad staff and their dismal mercantile environment at least provides an explanation as to why there rarely seems to be customers present.
Luckily, despite their dreary costume the staff do manage to bring some semblance of life to the store, particularly Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus), a shop girl whose struggles with a drunk father, gullible brother and complicated feelings for two of her colleagues have made for fascinating viewing over the past few weeks. Add to the mix a perfectly cast Zoë Tapper as Harry’s impetuous lover Ellen Love, and Mr Selfridge’s supporting cast looks in danger of outshining the main man himself.
Perhaps Mr Selfridge may not ever succeed in toppling the mighty Downton Abbey, but it is certainly well worth watching it try.
Mr Selfridge is on ITV1 on Sundays at 9pm.
words: Sarah Weir