Mr Selfridge promo

PBS’s Masterpiece Classic is now playing a period television drama mini-series about Harry Gordon Selfridge and his London department store Selfridge & Co.  It was produced by ITV Studios for ITV and PBS and is much longer than your typical British mini-series, where you’re often lucky to see three episodes (such as the brilliant but too short series Zen).  You’ll see plenty of comparisons to Downton Abbey from reviewers but they are all wrong.  Where Downton is steeped in the dramatic of a restricted age, Mr. Selfridge is a rollercoaster of movement and progress.  Led by Jeremy Piven here totally in his element as a forward-thinking business man with ideas to spare and never enough money to accomplish everything he wants to do, this BBC mini-series is a chronicle of progress in a place everyone knows well–the department store.  Ever wonder why the perfume counter is at the front of Macy’s and JC Penney’s?  Why make-up is sold with perfume but gloves with hats and belts?  Things that now seem trivial once had real meaning because of social mores of a bygone era.

Mr Selfridge Jeremy Piven

Jeremy Piven gets to play a character we love to see him play.  He’s flourishing in a world that seems like the Macy’s of Miracle on 34th Street to modern audiences but his department store goes back decades farther into the past.  Lucky for viewers and Piven, Selfridge was an American, so no need to trip over feigned British accents. Piven gets to be a showman with arms wide open to every customer and every prospective vendor, partner, investor, and even an ambitious show girl.

Piven never disappoints, and shines in the varied roles he takes.  Early in his career that meant a variety of smarmy types, but he’s grown on us, and his trying-too-hard characters often end up endearing instead of loathed.  Piven snuck up on us bit by bit in small roles in Lucas and a pile of John Cusack films: Bob Roberts, Elvis Stories, Floundering, One Crazy Summer, Say Anything…, The Grifters, Grosse Pointe Blank, Serendipity, and Runaway Jury.  But it wasn’t until Judgment Night, where Piven’s smarmy and cocky Ray Cochran tries to use his negotiation skill to save (unsuccessfully) a group of friends who take a wrong turn, that viewers really took note of this actor.  Then the Drake University-trained actor starred in PCU, and got to do his own Animal House film with a twist on Tim Matheson’s Eric Stratton–a classic cult favorite today.

Selfridge window display and Agnes

From there Piven became a familiar face if not household name in several TV appearances, featured in Coach, Grace Under Pressure, and The Drew Carey Show, with expanded roles on The Larry Sanders Show, Ellen, Will and Grace, and the reboot of The Twilight Zone.  He starred as Cupid in the short-lived series of the same name opposite Paula Marshall, one of his best performances to date. He even got to try on his salesman role as an over-the-top Versace seller in Rush Hour 2.  He continues to appear on TV and in movies and is likely best known for starring role as the uber-agent in Entourage.  Others may have seen him up close and personal in his journey across India in the nonfiction Journey of a Lifetime two-part series.

As Mr. Selfridge Piven is just perfect as this P.T. Barnum-inspired business genius.  His Mr. Selfridge possesses all the traits of a past or current entrepreneur, listening to those around him, changing with the times, pushing boundaries and changing the status quo at its core.  He is flamboyant, arrogant, confident, persuasive, charismatic and pragmatic.   It’s almost hard to believe anyone could be as real as Piven’s portrayal, yet no doubt the J.P. Morgans and other industrialists of the first part of the 20th century possessed the same kind of mettle in order to build the U.S. and the U.K. into what they are today.

Piven as Mr Selfridge

The supporting cast in Mr. Selfridge is equally compelling.  Aisling Loftus (who we saw opposite Jason Isaacs in Case Histories) plays Agnes Towler, a shop girl who loses her job on account of Selfridge’s antics, and her determined nature allows her to rise in the ranks of Selfridge’s department store.  Ron Cook (Horatio Hornblower, Doctor Who, Hot Fuzz) plays the aptly named Mr. Crabb, Selfridge’s stilted accountant.  French actor Grégory Fitoussi (Baron de Cobray in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) is brilliant as a high-maintenence window decorator.  Frances O’Connor (Timeline, A.I., Artificial Intelligence) shines as Selfridge’s ignored wife.  Zoe Tapper (Zen) portrays Ellen Love and Katherine Kelly as Lady Mae–two highly influential figures (if not in reality then as character amalgamations for the script) in the Selfridge story.

Here is a quick preview of Mr. Selfridge setting the scene and background for the series:

Episode 3 of ten initial episodes of Mr. Selfridge airs tonight on Public Television at 8 p.m. Central.  It’s definitely a must-see series.  And we hear ITV signed it for a second season!

C.J. Bunce
Editor
borg.com

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