The Weekend’s Viewing: But will we discover how the store came to lose its apostrophe?

Mr Selfridge, Sun, ITV1 // Tankies: Tank Heroes of World War Two, Sun, BBC2

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Are you glutted by shopping now? It would hardly be surprising. With the pre-Christmas potlatch frenzy seamlessly stitched to the post-Christmas sale stampede, even the most dedicated acquisitor tends to flag a little at this time of year.

ITV will be hoping you can summon up a little appetite, though, because it has a heroic tale for us – the story of a pioneer who battled hidebound tradition and social prejudice to bring the world something new. Naturally, his mission isn’t without its setbacks. “There’s always prejudice against anything that’s new,” says his wife consolingly when she discovers him momentarily cast down. And naturally the guttering flame of ambition reignites, as it always does in biopics about the great innovators of history: “They said we couldn’t do it... but we are going to prove them wrong!” our hero promises his adoring disciples, as they ready  themselves for a critical moment. And the ultimate object  of this epic endeavour? Powered flight? Penicillin? The NHS? No. Just a bigger, flashier department store.

Selfridges, in fact, brainchild of Mr Selfridge and the subject, a little astoundingly, of a new 10-part drama series from Andrew Davies. How he’s going to fill all that airtime, I’m not sure, but perhaps a later episode will reveal the  dramatic tale of how the store came to lose its apostrophe. In the meantime, we have to be brought up to speed with exactly what faces Mr Selfridge as he struggles to jolt London retail into the early 20th century. The action  begins in Gamages, as he tries to coax a shopgirl into showing him more than one pair of gloves at a time. Alarmed  by this breach of retail protocol, a floor-walker intervenes. “What if I said I was just looking?” asks Mr Selfridge. “This is a shop, sir, not an exhibition,” replies the floor-walker witheringly. Mr Selfridge smiles knowingly. He has hired Henri Leclair, a Monet of retail display, to do his windows and knows it is all about putting on a show.

Jeremy Piven plays Mr Selfridge, as a blend of Barnum self-promotion and intermittent humanising moments of uncertainty. He’s from the spend-now, worry-later school of business, but after  an early investor is frightened off by his brashness, he has  to track down new finance with the help of a salonnière called Lady Mae, who communicates almost entirely in sultry double entendres. While he drums up capital, flutters through preparation montages and flirts with a music-hall star called Ellen Love, various shopgirls and salesmen shuffle into place to provide the Downstairs counterpart to management’s Upstairs intrigues. If you saw The Paradise, the BBC’s pre-emptive strike on the retail melodrama market, you’ll know precisely what to expect. And if you don’t care a lot about shopping, you’re not really likely to give a damn, since mercantile ambition seems to be pretty much the beginning and the end of Mr Selfridge’s psychology. At one point, you see him lining up Love to be a glamour ambassador for the new store, blazing a trail for our world of celebrity endorsement and product placement. And as you watch him at work, it’s hard not to think, “Fail, you bastard, fail!”

Mark Urban’s Tankies: Tank Heroes of World War Two offered a true historical pivot and instances of real courage, telling the stories of six members of the 5th Royal Tank Regiment as they fought through the Second World War. It was a story that began ignobly, with a shambolic retreat from advancing Panzers in France in 1940. But then the regiment got better tanks, better leadership and a better sense of what battle really meant, and played a decisive part in turning the tide at El Alamein. “We gave them a good hiding,” said one veteran. The documentary properly alerted you to the horror that actually lay behind that softening euphemism.