Mr Selfridge: new Downton Abbey or Paradise revisited?

Jan 7, 2013

ITV’s new Sunday-night prime-time period drama gets lukewarm reviews from critics

THE HUGE ratings success of Downton Abbey was always going to be a hard act to follow and ITV's new Sunday night drama Mr Selfridge has left critics generally disappointed.

The period piece had its first airing on Sunday night in the same 9pm slot occupied by Downton. It won an audience of 7.3 million, compared with an average 9.5 million who watched the first Downton series in 2010.

But as Viv Groskop's blogs in The Guardian, Downton was so successful "how could anything else ever compare?”

The show's biggest problem is that it is based on a real person, Harry Gordon Selfridge, not fictional characters as in Downton Abbey. As TV critic Charlie Brooker tweeted: "I can't wait to see if Mr Selfridge will ever open his shop.”

The Daily Mail agreed that this was the programme's weak spot. "Mr Selfridge, although it is pretty to look at and appeals to the shopaholics amongst us, lacks any real suspense – we all know he succeeds and has a hugely popular shop.”

Other critics ignored the Downton comparison, instead pointing out the uncomfortable similarity between ITV's Mr Selfridge and the BBC drama The Paradise, an eight-part series broadcast just last autumn and also set in an Edwardian department store.

Benjamin Secher in the Daily Telegraph said: "Just weeks after The Paradise became a surprise hit for the BBC, ITV1 began a less cosy, more charismatic department store drama of its own.”

The Radio Times also pointed out the parallels, with critic Suzanna Lazarus writing: "Mr Selfridge will have to make more attempts to capture my imagination.”

Tom Sutcliffe in The Independent wonders how Mr Selfridge writer Andrew Davies is going to fill 10 episodes of a drama set in a department store. "Perhaps a later episode will reveal the dramatic tale of how the store came to lose its apostrophe.” Ouch.

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As a reason for failure, "we all know" the story gainsays nearly all we know about story-telling, from Hollywood "remakes" back to Sophocles and earlier. Should Sophocles have taken a pass on "Oedipus Rex" because his audience "all knew" the story?