In the build-up to Christmas, Selfridges spent buckets on ‘glitz’ for its flagship store on Oxford Street. It deployed 50 ‘elfridges’ to tell us what to buy, hired an 80-strong flash mob choir to warm our ears and, yep, even invested in enormous Snickers bars. We duly responded like Aztecs on entheogenic drugs, filing in to sacrifice our money on designer clothing. Or on overpriced salt beef sandwiches.
A bit over-the-top? Maybe. But as ITV1’s ambitious new period drama Mr Selfridge reveals, these gimmicks are nothing new. In fact, it seems today we’re getting the dull version compared to the extravaganza of shopaholism that once was.
London, 1909, and Harry Gordon Selfridge (Jeremy Piven) has arrived from Chicago to teach Britain that shopping can be so much more than a transaction. Oh yes. Shopping, Selfridge suggests, can be an orgasm. “I want merchandise that people don’t even know they’ll desire,” he says, arms out as if he’s the Willy Wonka of the porn world. “Until they see it right in front of their eyes.”
The trouble for Selfridge is that the Brits don’t quite share his vision. His financial partner Waring pulls out during the project’s infancy due to “reckless opportunism”. His mole-like head of finance, Mr Crabb, repeats the sentiment as he digs through the balance sheets of the books. And then Selfridge’s son is bullied at school for being the offspring of a “huckster”.
Of course, we have the pleasure of knowing it’ll be okay in the end. After all, armed with his bulging bag of cliches – before they’re even cliches – Selfridge is destined to become a retail deity. The customer is always right? Only x shopping days until Christmas? We’ve got him to thank for that.
And that’s just the problem. With any historical drama, the acting needs to dilute the inevitability of the story with flashes of magic. No such luck here. Piven is engrossing but there’s no pathos when things start to go awry. Instead, he sulks like a petulant child, whingeing to his mummy that it’s all so unfair. This isn’t the Piven I remember – where’s that self-boiling brilliance he brought to the role of Ari Gold in HBO’s Entourage? Hopefully we’ll get more of that in the coming weeks.
With any historical drama, the acting needs to dilute the inevitability of the story with flashes of magic. No such luck here
I’m also expecting greater things from Samuel West as the fingers-in-pies newspaper editor Frank, Katherine Kelly as the seductive socialite Lady Mae Loxley and Aisling Loftus as Agnes, the store’s underling with “hidden depths” – perhaps she’s the grandmother of Peggy Olsen from Mad Men? Maybe, like the best department stores, things will get better when all the seasonal hype dies down.
Another week, another new American comedy that asks whether it’s possible to be a parent and still be cool. Well, is it? Groundhog premise aside, Up All Night says yes, straddling an interesting border between nervous humour on one side and touching sentimentality on the other.
“Does smiley face mean there’s a baby in there?” whispers Chris – a tranquillised but always excellent Will Arnett – looking at his wife Reagan’s (Christina Applegate) tummy as she takes a pregnancy test. “Stop saying ‘baby in there’ as if there’s a baby hiding in the closet with a knife,” she hisses back.
Based on writer Emily Spivey’s experience of going back to work on Saturday Night Live after giving birth, Reagan, funnily enough, is a TV producer who returns to work on her show after having a baby. She’s neurotic, she fights to fit into the clothes she once “rocked”, she even has conversations with her TV, but with her stay-at-home husband on-board she might stand a chance.
If not, I’m sure this – the first instalment of what ITV’s director of acquisitions Angela Jain called a “tactical push for better comedy” – will stay the course. Especially with the help of Bridesmaids’ Maya Rudolph in a supporting role.
Meanwhile, over on BBC3, comedy’s baby shower continues with the return of Pramface. Like Chris and Reagan, Jamie and Laura from the first series are now struggling with the onset of parenthood. But there’s nothing particularly cool going on here. The jokes are more ‘heard it before’ than ‘tee-hee’, and the gross-out atmosphere doesn’t quite stand up to the likes of The Inbetweeners. Sadly it seems this particular sprog was probably born on a Wednesday.
Mr Selfridge, ITV1, Sunday, January 6, 9pm
Up All Night, ITV2, Monday, January 7, 9.30pm
Pramface, BBC3, Tuesday, January 8, 10pm