Thursday, 28 March 2013

Selfridges is a retail Paradise for our TV screens



Selfridges, the Paradise…it’s good to see some retailers doing well on the high street for once.
It’s a shame they’re fictional (only Selfridges isn’t…but you know what I mean). Watching the hugely successful ITV and BBC series respectively, both primarily concerned with driven men building up a retailempire from nothing (apart from a cash-rich backer or two) and inspiring their staff in the process, you could be forgiven for wishing to hark back to thetime before the internet came and ruined it all and made us buy stuff online instead of shops.
The penultimate episode of Mr Selfridge had Mr Woolworths in it for goodness sakes. Talk about hammering the point home. If only we could have warned him.’ It’s all going to go wrong in the early 21stCentury, invest in the internet as soon as they invent it. And maybe cut back on the pick and mix too’.
Mr Selfridge, in case you missed it, just completed its first series run on ITV 1 telling the story of the how the US entrepreneur came over to the UK to create (you’re ahead of me here) Selfridges, with all the scandals, mistresses, ups and downs that entailed (plus what the writers made up). It’s been a ratings hit and there’s a second series commissioned, due largely to the fact it’s very good, fun and – I’d venture – hankering back to the time that shopping really came into its own, with us punters buying stuff we never knew we wanted.

Meanwhile, The Paradise ran on BBC1 at the end of last year, concerning one Mr John Moray creating a department store in the North East, with all the ups and downs that entailed (have we been here before?) and it has been also commissioned for a second series. That’s due, largely, to the fact it is also very good, fun and – yes – hankering after the days when retail was first putting on its uniform. In the Paradise in particular, the all-conquering department store sits facing a parade of independent shops, clearly with things to say about a dominant retailer (or even the internet) killing off less powerful rivals.
On the face of it the two series sound incredibly similar, but having watched both I can vouch for them actually not mirroring each other very much at all. It helps that the Paradise is entirely fictional and set earlier in history than Selfridges, but the Paradise hints at wider social changes, while Selfridges is altogether more about the relationships and scandals of the time, despite, I’d argue paying lip service to the likes of female suffrage.
So why have these two become ratings hits? Well aside from good writing, acting and other trifling matters, there is this whole retail angle. It’s almost like they’ve set up a tragedy because we all know how it’s going to end. Much has been written about nostalgia-fuelled TV easing our worries while the economy threatens to collapse around our en-debted ears. The nostalgia here, in the case of the Paradise and Mr Selfridge, is more targeted and all the more poignant because it focuses on the birth of retail as we know it.
While the world of shopping isn’t quite falling down around our ears, it is, nonetheless, a savvy choice bringing these two series to our screens at a time like this. Charting how our love affair with shopping and spending began at a time when it’s got us into a fair old bit of debt-laden trouble is perhaps a genius move.