11/03/2013

Mr Selfridge Sells Success


"Look- I can fly!" declares Mr Selfridge. His employees are unconvinced.
 Rather like the shop itself, Mr Selfridge turns out to be a pleasant surprise. In the opening episode, the idea of items being on display in such a large shop was something people thought would never work but it became a huge success. Likewise, the series seemed a little forced at first and you thought- is this really going to sustain interest for ten weeks? By the time episode 10 arrived a suitably large audience was watching to ensure there will be a well-deserved second series. It’s been called the working class Downton Abbey which isn’t quite the case; in fact the department store hierarchy is reminiscent of a turn of the century country house. What Mr Selfridge does is improve on the other series’ somewhat stilted and predictably delivered storylines by having more defined characters. Also there is a steeliness in its main character that makes him often unsympathetic yet just as his employees are galvanised by his gusto, so the viewer is carried into a retail world we have seen little of in recent TV dramas and the result is a big ticket success.
The primary difference with Downton is that everyone has a job to do. Instead of the servants running around while the family sit about trying to entertain themselves, the Selfridges staff are embarking on a major new sort of business. The opening episode is as much about selling the idea to us as it is Selfridge himself trying to obtain financial backing. It starts off with a stutter- Jeremy Piven’s LARGE gesticulating portrayal is initially disconcerting before you get to know him. Also the fact that by episode 2 the store is already built and about to open after being a hole in the ground in episode 1 suggests that by part 7 we could be in the present day! Yet we know that all the best series unfurl gradually as this is the case here.

The risk of having a self centred, overly confident main character is offset by those he is surrounded by. After a while the minutia of window dressing or selling gloves retreats to allow these people to breathe and the benefits of having four different writers alternating episodes- as opposed to Julian Fellowes’ solo gig with Downton- begins to pay dividends.

In a large cast everyone has their chance to shine but there are four extremely strong sure handed performances you will remember.. Amanda Abbington (Miss Mardle) and Tom Goodman-Hill (deputy manager Mr Grove) essay a delicate relationship set against the background of Grove tending for his seriously ill wife. After she dies, he cannot continue the relationship whereas she expects it to finally develop. The unravelling of this occurs in fleeting encounters on the shop floor as she starts to realise it is over after she has waited so long. Other series would over dramatize this but the way it is handled is subtle and moving. Some excellent direction and both actors’ understated approach makes it a contrast to the business plot lines.

Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus) is our introduction to the series and proceeds to thrive in the shop despite early issues with a violent father and later a relationship with the French window designer Leclair. Agnes is the personification of the way Selfridge enthuses his workers and emblematic of the opportunities he can offer. She holds the screen amidst the bustle of the working day and you can see the way Agnes is pulled by ambition yet remains immune to Selfridge’s uncaring determination.


Mr Selfridge may be smiling but secretly he wants their hats


Then there’s Harry Gordon Selfridge himself.  Jeremy Piven has been rather unfairly criticised in some quarters for his steamroller of a performance yet it absolutely suits the character and if he was less you would never be convinced about what he achieves. Piven works wonders with this so that by the end of the series you can see a real person with flaws and all, far more satisfying than in some series where such a character would be portrayed as a saint.

The series makes strong use of the cultural difference between American gung ho and British reserve but the boldest gambit is making Selfridge so unlikeable when it comes to the way he treats his family. Piven pulls this out of the bag with skill; showing the guilt that Selfridge feels afterwards. The final scene says it all- his wife and family have effectively walked out on him but an inspirational word with a junior member of staff brings a smile back to his face. Work comes first for him and while we see than the series’ writers achieve an excellent job in showing how this affects his wife.

Indeed, the writing proved to be a highlight with a mixture of business and personal issues manoeuvring around the season sometimes colliding with power none more effectively than the affecting Miss Bunting storyline. The series does lag occasionally- 8 episodes might have been better than 10- and the arrival of someone famous in the store every week starts to look too samey. Yet the large cast is marshalled well by the writers and the storylines are full of interesting dialogue, three dimensional characters and a bubbling undercurrent of social observation. No aspect of the plot overwhelms the other making for a much more varied tone than other historical dramas while the direction is faultlessly atmospheric and period rich.

In short Mr Selfridge is another winner in ITV’s increasingly strong drama portfolio.




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