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posted: 3/29/2013 6:00 AM

PBS' 'Mr. Selfridge' showcases an American visionary

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  • Jeremy Piven stars as the bold businessman who reinvented shopping in PBS' "Mr. Selfridge."

    Jeremy Piven stars as the bold businessman who reinvented shopping in PBS' "Mr. Selfridge."

By Jacqueline Cutler

Harry Selfridge made shopping fun.

Sure, people always shopped, but it was more of a chore before Selfridge redefined the experience in 1909. Though many Americans may not know his name, the lush eight-part series "Mr. Selfridge," launching on PBS' "Masterpiece Classic" Sunday, March 31, brings viewers into his world.

It's well-worth the visit.

Jeremy Piven ("Entourage") is perfectly cast as the brash American in the title role.

"I would describe him as a burst of bright light, hopefully endearing and a powerful energy that possibly takes up a lot of energy in the room and yet is in love with what he does and his family and makes everyone in the room feel special," says Piven, who grew up in Evanston.

It's an apt description for the man who seems to always have something to prove and whose charisma enchants people. Set in England around the same time as "Downton Abbey," "Mr. Selfridge" is very much its own series.

"I lump it in with 'Downton,' but it has a pace all its own," Piven says. "It has a sense of humor. Those who like period drama, come in; you will not be disappointed. And those who don't know where PBS is, come in; it is a totally accessible world."

Sure, it's a far more mannered universe, yet human nature stays the same. "People have the same demons," Piven says. "They are not hiding behind an iPhone and texting. You have to go face to face. You can't hide. To me, what better time to depict as an actor?"

In the pilot, Selfridge announces, "We are going to show the world how to make shopping thrilling." He does. Selfridge has more than a touch of P.T. Barnum in him. He's a man of appetites, a huge ego and a visionary. Surrounded by naysayers, Selfridge creates, from a hole in the ground in an unfashionable corner of London, a magnificent store -- Selfridges -- that makes people want to shop.

Frances O'Connor ("Cashmere Mafia"), who plays Rose, Selfridge's wife, says when she shops there, "Your heart rate goes up. It is such a beautiful store, with high ceilings, and when you enter, it is so glamorous."

Rose is a smart, established woman who knows her husband is having affairs. By the second episode, she is determined to not be lonely. "I can understand why he chose her," O'Connor says. "She has a quiet strength, a sense of being grounded, and is very reassuring. She's her own person. She's not ever going to be a suffragette."

One of Selfridge's dalliances -- we can only assume there will be others -- is actress Ellen Love, a fictional character brought to life by Zoe Tapper. "She is a bit like Holly Golightly," Tapper says. "She has this social butterfly way about her. She purrs her way around a room. Underneath her vulnerability, she has some demons. She's quite a modern woman for her time, making her way in 1909. The occupation of being an actress was almost akin to being a prostitute, and she represented this celebrity status."

Besides falling in love with her, Selfridge instantly recognizes that his store needs an icon, a face to represent it. He picks her.

Like any wonderful period piece, "Mr. Selfridge" has magnificent costumes.

"In Britain we don't have as much money to make programs as in America," costume designer James Keast says. "One of our skills is to make it look expensive. With that in mind, it was mostly filming in a shop where the colors will be black because that was the uniform of the day."

He revived period dresses, dyed fabrics and added flourishes, using his own stash of vintage lace.

As perfect as this looks and well-cast as the actors are, as with any series, it all comes down to the writing. Here, it is Andrew Davies who gives characters deliciously arch lines.

Lady Mae (Katherine Kelly), a cunning socialite, says, "There are so many different ways to run a marriage, don't you think? And to never see each other, that's one of the very best."

"His story is not well-known," Davies says of Selfridge. "People in the U.K. were surprised to find he was an American."

Selfridge's ideas were boldly American. He eschewed tradition for trendsetting -- including prominently displaying cosmetics on the ground floor, when nice women did not even admit to using moisturizer. He coined the phrase "the customer is always right" and shook up London's stuffy establishments.

"I thought his story had such deep resonance," Davies says. "He was charismatic and had a lot of ladies. He can generate a lot of episodes."

Reared by a single mom after his father took a powder, Selfridge lived the life of someone always trying to prove himself.

"He was a kind of American tragedy in four or five long acts lived out in London," Davies says. "The whole complexity of it, it could be almost as rich as 'The Sopranos.' He is a very powerful guy. He can exercise power for good or bad."

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