- By Leah Rozen
England, the way it used to be, is coming back to PBS.
Fans of Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs, The Forsyte Saga and similar British costume dramas that have long been a staple of the network have two new series to watch. Both begin airing this Sunday (March 31).
If you’re a sucker for highbrow soap operas with extended pinkies and petticoats, get ready to embrace Call the Midwife, which is returning for its second season at 8 p.m. Eastern time, and Mr. Selfridge, which has its two-hour premiere on Masterpiece at 9 p.m. Eastern time.
Both series are set in the London of days gone by and are rooted in fact, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Call the Midwife is a gritty yet idealistic look at a fledgling midwife who works in the slums in the late 1950s. Mr. Selfridge is a fanciful, fictionalized portrait of Harry Gordon Selfridge, a self-made Chicago retailer who founded the sumptuous, high-end Selfridge’s department store during the Edwardian Age.
(MORE: 'Call the Midwife': Birth of a Nationwide Health Care Movement)
The poor, crowded neighborhood of Poplar in London’s East End is the setting for Call the Midwife, a series based on a trio of best-selling memoirs by Jennifer Worth. The show’s central character is Jenny (played by Jessica Raine), a newly minted midwife who comes to Poplar from a sheltered, middle-class background in 1957. (Every episode begins and ends with a voiceover by Vanessa Redgrave who, as an older Jenny, warmly and sometimes ruefully reflects on the lessons she learned long ago during her years in the East End.)
The show revolves around the adventures of Jenny and her fellow midwives, a group that includes three other young women and four nuns of varying ages, including one (played with a mischievous twinkle by Judy Parfitt) who’s sliding into her dotage. The laywomen and the nuns live together at Nonnatus House, a religious residence affiliated with the nun’s Anglican order, and all pedal about on sturdy bicycles when calling on patients.
The breakout character on Call the Midwife has been the endearing Chummy (played by comedian Miranda Hart), a name that is short for Camilla Fortescue-Cholmondeley-Browne. A tall, ungainly woman from an upper-class background, she had the unlikeliest of romances in the first season when she fell for and later married a humble local bobby (Ben Caplan). In this second season, Chummy will consider becoming a missionary in Africa.
Mr. Selfridge is set nearly a half century earlier, when London was seeing its first noisy automobiles and was just emerging from the long Victorian Era. The show is created and written by Andrew Davies, a costume drama veteran whose credits include Pride and Prejudice, House of Cards, Bleak House and Little Dorrit.
The series begins in 1908 as Harry Gordon Selfridge (Jeremy Piven, best known as Ari Gold, the screaming agent on HBO’s Entourage) is on the verge of opening his eponymous department store despite rickety financing. Selfridge is a hustler by nature, willing to bet the store, as it were, that if he builds it bigger and better and lays on the razzle-dazzle, shoppers will flock to his Oxford Street emporium. “I want merchandise that people won't even know they desire until they see it in front of their eyes,” he says.
Following the Downton Abbey formula, there’s an upstairs/downstairs caste in Mr. Selfridge. Upstairs, we have Selfridge, his family (including his forbearing wife, played by Frances O’Connor), a titled lady investor and various friends. The metaphorical downstairs characters are the shop’s staff, including a sympathetic young saleswoman (Aisling Loftus) dealing with an alcoholic, abusive father at home, and an attractive, ambitious waiter (Trystan Gravelle) at the store’s café whose boss encourages him to sleep with rich female customers.
We’ll see how Mr. Selfridge plays out, but there may be a central problem with the casting of Piven. Selfridge is a self-promoter, an adulterer and, to use contemporary parlance, a spinmeister. To pull all that off and still have viewers rooting for him to succeed, the actor playing him needs copious charm and magnetism. Piven, at least in the first couple of episodes, fails to fill the bill. A little Piven goes a long way — as he showed in Entourage — and there may be too much of him here.
But watch and decide for yourself.