Mr Selfridge versus The Musketeers!

ITV / BBC Sundays @ 9pm from 19/01/14
The Sunday evening drama clash of swords and silk ends in victory for D’Artangian and co but both shows shine.

Imagine! Here come the Musketeers fearlessly striding down the streets, swords at the ready and round the other corner is Mr Selfridge who has nothing but his shouting, beard and millinery to fight with. Yet hold on; he’s actually had Agnes build a false wall into which the Musketeers walk, causing them to fall over whereupon the store’s staff charge armed with tape measures. Only they don’t know that the Musketeers actually carry muskets (is that where the moniker comes from?) and they mow down the enormous hat wearing army. It’s a tempting thought to imagine the loudest entrepreneur of the early 1900s doing battle with the 1600’s finest swordsmen but these two shows are clashing in an old fashioned scheduling way. Nowadays of course we can watch both but which would you choose if you could only have one? 
"Come on Musketeers, we can beat you easy!"
"You can't dance like Take That though can you Harry?"

Both shows share a blustery feel, fresh and powerful in the way that only new series can. Mr Selfridge is on his second season, an often fatal trap for the unwary but on the evidence of the opening episode he and his store should be fine having retained the vigour and added a little restraint around the edges. The Musketeers is a brand new version of a story everyone knows (unlike that of Harry Selfridge who let’s be honest, we’d never even heard of before) so has the extra challenge of producing something unexpected. It delivers one of the best series openers of recent times; whereas it took Atlantis for example about 7 or 8 episodes to get going, the first episode of The Musketeers is a triumph from the start.
Mr Selfridge was one of 2013’s surprise hits winning us over with the same sort of charm with which its title character managed to pitch up in Oxford Street and open a new type of store. The series managed to sum up life at all levels of the new shop and despite a sometimes irritating central performance by Jeremy Piven, who never speaks loudly when shouting will do, scored because we soon learned to care about the characters. In fact as it went on the combination of business and personal relationships became a far more interesting, involving one than the comparatively threadbare Downton Abbey.
At its centre is Agnes Towler who started at the bottom but now after a two year sojourn in Paris is Head of Displays. Always persuasive these kind of stories rely on the sympathetic performance of the actor and in this case Aisling Loftus is superb as she tries to follow her ideas however much it annoys the prissy new head of fashion.  Piven is calmer perhaps because Harry is fretting over marriage problems and therefore less domineering allowing other cast members to shine. Amongst them Ron Cook remains fun as the ever scurrying, slightly panicky accountant Mr Crabb and Amanda Abingdon’s emotionally wounded but proud Miss Mardle. The episode centres around celebrations of the stores’ fifth anniversary and a book reading by a controversial author whom Mrs Selfridge (Frances O’Connor always great at looking displeased with her husband) has befriended. There are several potential plots bubbling and yet each is written interestingly and with variation:  Julian Fellows ought to watch this to see how a large cast should be choreographed.

"But I can stop time boys.."

Three centuries or so earlier and D’Artaganan arrives in a muddy looking Paris to avenge the murder of his father apparently by the hand of famed Musketeer Athos.  This version of a very well-worn story is framed in brown and grey, full of shadows and narrow alleys, the sumptuous costumery of other versions giving way to a lived in look.  Even the colour palette of the king’s retinue is comparatively restrained. Writer Adrian Hodge marshals the tale to a point where it seems fresh, aided by Toby Haynes' direction which roots everything in what could be conceivably be done. At no point do swordsmen appear to glide effortlessly though the air unaided and nobody battles 20 guards on their own yet there are Saturday matinee thrills aplenty.
This approach is further supported by a zippy story which develops quickly giving us a plot point every minute or so. Some of the modern camera tricks now beloved of historical adaptations are absent, Haynes preferring to emphasise the struggle meaning that the victories are well earned. The Musketeers themselves are thankfully equally as down to earth; Tom Burke‘s Athos adds a wry touch to proceedings In the central role Luke Pasqualino suits the series’ approach and makes a strong debut enjoying instant chemistry with everyone. Pitched against them primarily are Milady de Winter   played with relish and a red dress by Maimie McCoy and Cardinal Richelieu, a typically scheming Peter Capaldi. Fast, fun and well-staged The Musketeers is the early winner, with overnight ratings of 7.4m compared to Mr Selfridge’s 4.8m.
However it is early days and both series deserve our attention It’s a shame they’re on the same night because whatever we think ratings do play a key part in re-commissioning shows and this duo are a better proposition than much of the rest of the week’s programmes.

"Yeah  but we can make snow..."

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