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Meet Mr. Selfridge

Jeremy Pivens

Jeremy Piven stars as the upstart American who taught the English how to shop on Mr. Selfridge, a new eight-part Masterpiece Classic series created by Emmy Award–winning writer Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice, Bleak House), premiering March 31, 2013 on KQED 9.

Piven recently talked about his first television stint since his Golden Globe– and Emmy–award winning role as Ari Gold in Entourage.

"I remember exactly where I was when my agent told me about Mr. Selfridge," he recalls. "I was fascinated and blown away by the story of this true pioneer and a role that's rare to come by on stage, film or TV."

"He was a pioneer in every sense of the word. You have this American at the turn of the century coming to Britain and having a real sense of what he wants to do — even though it hasn't been done before."

Flamboyant and visionary Harry Selfridge transformed Chicago's Marshall Field and Company s into a modern department store before coming to Britain to found Selfridge's.

"It's a great role and a story many people won't know. Growing up myself in Chicago and going to Marshall Field's from the time I was a kid, I had a sense of where this guy came from. But while I'm also an American from Chicago making my way in unchartered territory, Harry Selfridge was a showman and liked to be the center of attention, whereas I like to disappear in a room and watch everyone else."

Retail outlets were very different before Selfridge came along and invented the modern department store with his shopping palace on London's Oxford Street.

"In one episode, Harry decides to put the beauty products at the front of his store, so as soon as the customers walked in they would see these perfumes and beauty products. No one was doing this yet in the U.K., though they were dabbling with it in Paris. He was smart enough to take ideas from the trailblazers."

"And what's so fascinating is that here we are 100 years later and you walk into any store and what he took a chance with and implemented in 1909 is still going strong."

Harry Selfridge appeared to be able to look into the very soul of what women wanted. "He loved, honored, respected and celebrated women wanted them to feel empowered."

But as a married family man, Harry also had an eye for the ladies and in the drama falls for celebrated stage star Ellen Love (Zoë Tapper), among others.

"You could look at him and say, 'How could a man who loved his wife and his family be seduced by these other women?' Because of his love for the arts and for women he falls for Ellen. He's so enamored with her and the way she carries herself as an artist. Then you see her rise and fall."

"I'm not saying you'll understand it morally, but Andrew Davies has written such a beautiful script that you could possibly understand why Selfridge would take the path that he does. And yet it's still surprising."

A replica of the 1909 Selfridge's store was built on a massive set on a site in the north of the capital. "It's just incredible. There is Selfridge's that we have a reference for in the modern day, and they've recreated it at the turn of the century. The attention to detail is beautiful."

After getting the role Jeremy revisited the real Selfridges. "I went in honor of Harry Selfridge and I bought a jacket. I was totally under the radar and it was fantastic and I loved it. But I didn't go parading around going, 'Do you have any idea who I am?' I will never be that guy!"

Harry was the man at the birth of modern-day shopping as we know it today and treated his store like a theater of retail. "He was a showman. He loved to rely on publicity. But never false publicity. He really wanted to make sure that it was always truthful. He put a lot of time, money and effort into publicizing his store."

One episode sees Harry persuading Louis Blériot to display his plane inside the store after the French aviator had become world famous by making the first flight across the English Channel.

"That's one of my favorite scenes. This genius inventor and daredevil Blériot is so skeptical of Harry. As he should be. Who is this guy? You see Harry Selfridge at work as he convinces Blériot he should put his plane in the store."

Piven says viewers will be intrigued by many of the characters in Mr. Selfridge. "It's a true ensemble piece. You've got these wonderful catty shop-girls with these beautiful cockney accents. And then you've got Katherine Kelly as the posh Lady Mae. "

A long-time fan of British television, Piven recalls "My initial inspirations are Monty Python and then everything from that to modern day drama like Luther. I watched Downton Abbey before it took off in the States and loved it from the first moment. I've worked with Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Cora in Downton Abbey, and I'm really proud of her. It's funny that we both end up in British series."

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