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'Mr Selfridge' Series Puts Spotlight on Legendary Retailer

The lavish costume drama, which stars another Chicago native, Jeremy Piven, is based on Harry Gordon Selfridge's quest to sex up British shopping.

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Zoe Tapper as Ellen Love.

Photo By Christian Black/ITV

The full cast of Mr. Selfridge for ITV1.

Photo By ITV Studios Present

LONDON — Harry Gordon Selfridge, the man who helped put the romance into retail, is ready to sweet-talk the American public in a new British TV drama that’s a world away from “Downton Abbey.”

Later this month, PBS will air “Mr Selfridge,” the biggest show it has ever created and brought to the screen. Produced by ITV Studios for ITV1 and PBS, it’s a lavish costume drama — with cash registers and midseason sales — based on the Chicago native Selfridge and his quest to sex up British shopping.

Forget Downton’s posh types above stairs and the paupers down below. “Mr Selfridge” has showgirls, shopgirls, brash businessmen and lots of snazzy merch. Thanks to Harry Selfridge, Selfridges was the first store in Britain to put the bling into shopping and bill it as entertainment rather than a chore.

The 10-part series, which stars another Chicago native, Jeremy Piven, is based on Lindy Woodhead’s 2007 biography of the rags-to-riches-to-rags retailer, “Shopping, Seduction and Mr. Selfridge.” Woodhead’s book will be published for the first time in the U.S. by Random House to coincide with the launch of the series on March 31.

The show, created and cowritten by the Emmy Award-winning Andrew Davies, made its debut here in January and already attracted an average audience of 8.5 million per episode, compared with 10.1 million for the third — and highest-rated — season of “Downton.” A second season of “Mr Selfridge” has been given the green light, and filming begins in April. A third season is also in the pipeline, according to industry sources.

“Downton” and “Mr Selfridge” follow roughly the same time frame — both begin with the Edwardian Era in full swing and the British Empire at its height. Their budgets, at upwards of 1 million pounds an episode, or $1.51 million at current exchange, are similar too. But the show’s executive producer, Kate Lewis, insists the similarities end there.

“‘Downton Abbey’ hit a certain zeitgeist and spurred a golden age for U.K. drama, but with ‘Mr Selfridge’ we’ve tried to do something different,” said Lewis in an interview following a tour of the set in a cavernous former carpet warehouse in London.

“We’ve based it on an historical figure…and we’re looking at a turning point in history through the prism of retail. We’re also looking at what happened to women: Retail was the one place where a woman could have a high-powered career, and that is fascinating.”

“Downton,” she said, was very much about looking back and about “the modern world imposing on the past. We’re very much about progress, commerce and the future.”

Before the great showman and marketer Selfridge — who had amassed a fortune as a partner at Marshall Field & Co. — arrived in England, there wasn’t so much as a powder room in any store. Shop windows were a jumble of incongruous merchandise, and rarely was there heating or even adequate lighting. At the time, stores also used to employ a sales assistant known as a “floorwalker,” whose job was to eject members of the public who were perceived to be browsing rather than buying.

By contrast, Selfridge wanted his Oxford Street store to offer the public lots of entertainment and opportunities to linger. It had a restaurant, the Palm Court; a ground-floor beauty hall with a dedicated Elizabeth Arden counter; escalators; air-conditioning; live entertainment; celebrity appearances, and even special training programs and leisure activities for the staff.

Much like Selfridge himself, ITV was thinking on a grand scale. It re-created the vast ground floor of the Oxford Street flagship, right down to the marble pillars, which are placed at exactly the same distance as they were in the original store. In addition, Harry’s Art Nouveau-ish townhouse has a full-scale breakfast room, a hallway with colored North African-style tiles and a cantilevered staircase.

“We started from nothing,” said Rob Harris, the production designer, whose team created the pillars and walls from trompe l’oeil marble, stained glass windows and a “movable feast” of glass counters on wheels, laden with leather gloves, jewelry, colored shawls, soaps and fragrances. “We really wanted to capture the revolutionary nature — and the welcoming expanse — of the store as it was then,” said Harris.

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