Jeremy Piven is Harry Selfridge in "Mr. Selfridge." (John Rogers / ITV Studios )
From the nation that brought you "Are You Being Served?" comes "Mr. Selfridge," a loose dramatization of the founding of a British retail institution, the Selfridge & Co. department store, familiarly called Selfridges. Its eight-part run begins Sunday, under the colors of PBS' "Masterpiece."
Starring Jeremy Piven as Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American who brought recreational shopping to Britain, it is neither a miniseries nor a biopic, but a full-on, open-ended TV series — a second season is already slated for 2014 — which, like "The Tudors/The Borgias," takes real people from a real place and time and embroiders their lives with the sort of things you watch television for.
There are resemblances to "Mad Men," as well, in that it is a period piece about the business of selling and the dreaminess of buying; and of "Downton Abbey" because it is concerned with social mobility at the end of the Edwardian era and ... big hats.
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Auspiciously, it was created by Andrew Davies, British TV's go-to guy for adapting the classics almost since the classics were new. "South Riding" was his last project; "War and Peace" arrives in 2015.
Lindy Woodhead's "Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge," the book from which "Mr. Selfridge" is wrought, has been less kind to him: It's an interesting read, and more enlightening than the series, but short on actual scenes, and Davies — who has invented all the major characters apart from the Selfridge family — has whipped flecks of fact into something more sensational, obvious and soap operatic.
As drama, it's uneven, often cliched, even silly, but, like the store in which it's set — and whose ground floor, mezzanine and facade have been splendidly re-created — so variously stocked that you will likely find something here to take home.
The story begins in 1908 with a big hole in the ground at the "dead end" of London's Oxford Street; we are given to understand that British retail until Selfridge was a gloomy, private business, where browsing was discouraged and the goods were, in any case, hidden. Selfridge, whom Piven plays with a plethora of flashing white teeth and sweeping symmetrical gesticulations, is going to change that, whatever London thinks. ("Pa, what's a huckster?" his son asks him one night.)
Light bulbs are forever going off over his head, to order a sale, a celebrity in-store appearance or putting cosmetics out on open display, a move his staff first regards as if he were opening a sex shop — which, in the context of that era in London, I suppose he was.
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There is some good company here, including the great Ron Cook ("Topsy-Turvy"), as the store's fretful financial manager; Amanda Abbington (as the head of accessories), whose every scene I looked forward to; and Frances O'Connor, suffering demurely as Rose Selfridge, whom her rambling, gambling husband idolizes, neglects and betrays in equal amounts. As if in recompense, Davies packs her off to the National Gallery — via the underground, scandalously — to be cruised by a bohemian artist-type (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).
Zoe Tapper plays the fictional Ellen Love, a West End performer Selfridge engages to be "The Spirit of Selfridges," and his mistress; we see her often in her Edwardian undergarments. Its real spirit, however, if we take the store to represent the age, is embodied by shopgirl Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus), who wants something more out of life. She is not afraid to raise her hand or to push back politely against doubtful authority; the show is at its best in her presence.