An American in London

New PBS series will document the story of Harry Gordon Selfridge
Posted January 23, 2013

We’re intimidated by the British, and we know it. They speak our language better than we do, dress better than we do, write better books and make better movies, plays and songs.

Nothing drives that inferiority complex home to us more than public television. “Upstairs, Downstairs,” “Jewel in the Crown,” “Brideshead Revisited,” right up to “Downton Abbey,” PBS is continually force-feeding us the superior intelligence, manners and elegance of our European forebears. We may rule the world now, but never forget who once ruled that world. Never forget where we came from.

They thrived in the drawing room. Most of us here don’t even have a drawing room. (What does one do in a drawing room anyway?)

And here comes yet another installment. Lest we think that R.H. Macy, Marshall Field, Isidore Straus and Herbert Marcus perfected the idea of the department store, a new PBS series called “Mr. Selfridge” is coming in March to remind us where the heart of retail fashion actually exists.

Selfridges. Harrods. Harvey Nichols. Fortnum & Mason. No visit to London is complete without exploring those hallowed halls – the confluence of today’s fashion and yesterday’s traditions of service and style.

And so, who is “Mr. Selfridge” actually? And why a series about him?

In the show, as portrayed by Jeremy Piven, Harry Gordon Selfridge is – wait! what? Jeremy Piven? You mean Ari Gold of “Entourage”? American Jew from Chicago? What kind of casting is that?

Turns out, Mr. Selfridge, quintessential British retailer, is from Ripon, Wis., quintessential American cheesehead. He started with the Field family, married into British aristocracy and opened his store on Oxford Street in 1909.

The program’s trailer shows Mr. Selfridge telling his staff, “You are in at the beginning of something amazing. We are going to show the world how to make shopping thrilling. We’re giving them glamour, style, razzmatazz. We need to put on a show.”

Those are retail words to live by, as important in 2013 as in 1909. More important, actually.

I sense there will be plenty of sexy subplots, too, but this looks like a must-see for anyone in the retail business. It will have all those elegant British touches of set design, costume design and period detail. Because who does any of that better than the Brits? Well, if Mr. Selfridge is any kind of a role model, Americans have done it pretty well themselves.

Take that, Earl of Grantham, you may be buying your clothes from a cheesehead.