PBS is back desperately trying to keep the audience it gained with Downton Abbey. Its latest installment is Mr. Selfridge. The story follows the rise of American Department store innovator Harry Gordon Selfridge as he opens his unique store in London England. The show is an adaptation of Lindy Woodhead’s biography titled “Shopping Seduction and Mr. Selfridge.’
The time is 1908 and all of London is abuzz – some good, some a bit more on the skeptical side. Our dear Harry is played by one of my favorite actors, Jeremy Piven (Entourage). The reviews are mixed much like Harry’s were in 1908. David Hinckley from the Dailey News writes, “Piven plays Harry Selfridge as a force of nature, an American with all the traits Brits despise in Americans.”
He bluffs, he blusters, he charms to the extent that’s the character. He goes on to say that “Piven spills over the top, taking all the oxygen in the room.” Now I did correct David’s grammar from his original review, but his point is valid. David, my esteemed colleague, only saw what was on the surface? If one is to play a Barnum Big Top style personality, one must play them as close to the real person as can be discovered. As the character grows and develops, the actor may be able to develop an insightful presentation into the characters soul. Piven nailed Harry Selfridge. Historically, Mr. Selfridge was way over the top and often took the oxygen out of the room along with several mistresses over the years. Selfridge was manic, mad as a hatter and often out of control. Piven embodied what it is to be a real showman, a charlatan, trickster and a superb visionary.
Piven/Harry has a smile that could melt concrete, and all the while Harry posters and boasts, selling you his latest scheme or idea there is a bit of non-belief coming from his manner as if Selfridge himself doesn’t buy what he himself is selling. Piven seduces you on screen. You know you’re being had but you still love the attention.
One of my favorite new characters was Lady Mae played superbly by Katherine Kelly (Coronation Street). I love strong women. In future episodes, I am sure Lady May will become a dangerous liaison. What a force of nature is Lady Mae, how delicious.
Today we take the modern department store for granted but it was very different in London in 1908. Smart People never went shopping. A lady called for her dressmaker, gentlemen went, of course, to their tailor. Harry made it a fun experience at a time when women were just beginning to enjoy the fruits of emancipation by wandering unescorted around the city of London. A canny marketer, Selfridge promoted the radical notion of shopping for pleasure rather than necessity. The store was extensively promoted through paid advertising. The shop floors were structured so that goods could be made more accessible to customers. There were elegant restaurants with modest prices, a library, reading and writing rooms, special reception rooms for French, German, American and “Colonial” customers, a First Aid Room, and a Silence Room, with soft lights, deep chairs, and double-glazing, all intended to keep customers in the store as long as possible. Staff members were taught to be on hand to assist customers, but not too aggressively, and to sell the merchandise.
Some of the unknown stars of ‘Mr. Selfridge’ is production designer Rob Harris, Series Art Direction, Jo Riddell, Terry Jones and Sophia Chowdury who designed the series Set Decorations. They are dazzling. Not to leave out hair and makeup or any of the highly talented individuals who combined make this a lavish production. The writing so far is insightful, daring and yet modern within a period costumed drama.
Zoë Tapper plays Ellen Love, the stag sensation and the spirit of Selfridge. You know what happens when you have two much spirits, with Zoe you can get quite drunk. I fell in love with Zoë when she played Kay Strange in Agatha Christies, Towards Zero. Her character is playful and seduces the audience as well as Harry.
Harry’s mouse-like wife Rose is played by Francis O’Conner (Wives and Daughters). It would seem the writers truly believe what is good for the goose is just as good for the gander. Our Rose by any other name used her madden name to gain entrance into the world of an up and coming artist. Rose is about to get plucked herself. The real Rose Selfridge was vastly different from the character. She was a strong woman. She developed and built elegant villa properties. She had a keen sense of business and amassed a fortune of her own. I am not sure why the producers felt her character would be played better by making Rose a fish out of water, looking for lust in all the right places of the day.
Aisling Loftus (Little Crackers) plays Agnes Towler. Aggie along with her brother are trying to escape a low life farther. (who isn’t) She meets Mr. Selfridge and by helping him, she loses her job. In 1908, jobs were scarce especially for women. Mr. Selfridge sent her a pair of red gloves and this kind act would prove very helpful when she needed a job. She becomes an assistant accessories manager at one of the counters. Agnes is another very interesting character. We will be watching how she develops over the first season.
A store can be quiet bold, and filled with silver and gold but the windows are the soul for what it’s worth, but if a window isn’t pretty, to bring in people from the city, all you get from them is pity and a sigh. So to dress up the store window, you need a certain type of fellow, a gentleman with style and grace who knows just the thing for you to buy. Selfridges resident window efficiendo is Henri Leclair played by Grégory Fitoussi (Spiral).
Henri is a tyrannical, enraged, and frustrated artist whose job is to dress the storefront window displays much like a fashion designer does for his/her client. Mr. Selfridge understood that and was the first. Selfridge Christmas displays were legendary. People came from all over Europe to see Harry’s store windows. Harry also was the creator of the phase its only (xxx) days until Christmas.
While I like Henri, if I had one complaint about the show, I would say there are no real gay characters. Not to stereotype but in 1908, gay men were common in retail stores. It was considered but not spoken of that gay men had style, were quiet attractive and could easily identify with women shoppers (best girlfriend type). I would have made Henri Leclair a strong but not flamboyant gay man. We already have the lead character as a womanizer.
Spy Hollywood rates Mr. Selfridge a hit, and the majority of the public agrees. Harry can now give us another one of his million dollar smiles,because Mr. Selfridge has been renewed for a second season.
Selfridge was built on the principal of fun. Harry said “People Want To Be Amused, So Lets Give Them One Hell Of A Show” “Welcome To Selfridge and Company”