On the set of 'Mr Selfridge'

Phil Harrison talks costume dramas and London icons with the star and writer of ITV1’s new series

Jeremy Piven is impressed: ‘Is it always like this?’ he asks, pondering the galvanising and mood-sweetening effect of the Olympics on London. ‘Everyone is just so on top of their game.’ The ‘Entourage’ star has been lucky. If he’d spent summer in the Big Smoke a year earlier, he’d have been contemplating smashed shop fronts, burnt-out cars and social breakdown. As it is, it’s early October and the London 2012 afterglow remains palpable. However, in Neasden, where Piven is approaching the end of a lengthy stint shooting the first series of ITV1’s new drama ‘Mr Selfridge’, not quite everything’s perfect. When it comes to British coffee, Piven is underwhelmed. His trailer contains an extremely fancy looking coffee-maker and we’re told that one day during filming, he treated the cast and crew to a specially arranged hit of top-notch caffeine.

It’s a gesture that suggests instinctive generosity but also a certain impatience with aspects of British culture, and suggests that, as far as ‘Mr Selfridge’ is concerned, Piven has been well cast. As a self-made, working-class American, Harry Selfridge’s dream of a less formal, more inclusive model of high-quality shopping rubbed up against early twentieth century London’s snobbery, intransigence and limited horizons.

Still, as you’ll have surmised from his surname, he got there in the end. Now, he’s getting his just deserts; they include having a TV drama made in his honour. ‘Mr Selfridge’ is lively, fun and occasionally endearingly silly. It looks wonderful; entering the Neasden set is like walking into a selectively rendered dream of Old London containing none of the poverty and pestilence but all of the elegantly crafted sumptuousness. The sudden appearance of Harry Selfridge’s shop on Oxford Street in 1909 must have felt like an invasion of alien emmissaries from Planet Luxury; recreating this can’t have been cheap. But no period detail has been left to chance and at the centre of it all is the hyper-energetic, risk-addicted, retail pioneer Harry. 

Jeremy Piven gets some love in 'Mr Selfridge' Jeremy Piven gets some love in 'Mr Selfridge'

Harry was a complex man. He was a supporter of the suffragettes and as a result, Selfridges had some of  Oxford Street’s only shop windows to remain unmolested during their protest marches. His interest in the affairs of the opposite sex extended to offering unusually excellent employment opportunities to women and, perhaps inevitably, bedding as many of them as possible, despite the presence in London of his long-suffering wife. ‘He really does have his flaws,’ admits Piven. ‘But you should never judge the characters that you play. He’s open to all the radiant things around him. He loved to inspire his workers and he had so much integrity in the workplace, although that might not have always bled into his personal life!’

As a result of Harry’s contradictions, his story is a singular one – a tale from different times that seems to reach into our own. Perhaps that’s what attracted screenwriter Andrew Davies to Lindy Woodhead’s book, ‘Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge’, upon which the series is based. Much of Davies’s best work – like 2011’s ‘South Riding’ and his acclaimed 2005 reboot of ‘Bleak House’ – has involved locating universal experience in stories from the past. At the moment, ‘Downton Abbey’ is the touchstone for populist ITV drama, but Davies gently baulks at the comparison. ‘“Downton” is about conserving tradition,’ he argues. ‘We’re about modernity and glamour and change. That doesn’t mean we don’t like “Downton”. But our characters have different values.’

Davies is right. ‘Downton’ represents the death throes of a bygone era – hereditary privilege, deference and the status quo are under siege but defending themselves vigorously. ‘Mr Selfridge’, with its new foreign money, nascent brand culture and emerging consumerism represents a new age being born. Our age, for better or worse. Still, ‘Mr Selfridge’ wears its history lightly. At various points, it’s an underdog triumph, a romantic melodrama, a feast of immaculate staging, costume and design and a likeably cheesy workplace romp. Shopgirls and showgirls rub shoulders and British caution co-exists awkwardly with ‘can-do’ American brio. ‘Harry lived an amazing life,’ observes Piven. ‘Sometimes it’s like a Greek tragedy, but if you’re going to celebrate a life, you should celebrate a whole life. His was amazing.’

'Mr Selfridge' airs on Sundays from January 6, 9pm, ITV1. Click here for the Time Out verdict.